"The Flower of My Secret" is a film of "good feelings," which does not imply at all any concessions to sentimentality. That is, it is a drama. Although I adore melodrama, this time I chose the aridity and the synthesis. Bile instead of honey. Tears that do not serve to let off steam, but to asphyxiate. True Pain.
This "Flower...." casts an intense and painful spell, and yet, there are no evil characters. They are all good, like in a film by Capra. But in spite of this absence of evil, their mere clumsiness, indecision or cowardice (or quite simply the fact that human beings are imperfect) ends up causing pain to those around them.
Another expression that I am terrified to use (besides "good feelings") is "the story is full of humanity" or "the characters overflow with humanity." But that is the case, even if these expressions have lost their meaning through their abuse or misuse.
I remember perfectly the first pages that I wrote of all the scripts that I have shot, those that were the motor and seed of a future film. My first impulse was to make a short from these first pages, but I always ended up turning them into feature length films, not only because it was more profitable but because these first pages provoked in me enormous curiosity about the characters and the situations they were living. And if I wanted to know how they had arrived in these situations and what would happen to them afterwards, I had to find out and write it myself. And while I inquired into the past and future of these characters I ended up discovering the story I wanted to tell, which, in the beginning, I didn't even know by intuition.
Because of this haphazard system of creation, the first scenes that I write almost always end up in the middle of the film they generate.
The first thing I wrote in "Kika" was all of the episode of the rape, from the moment Paul Bazzo arrives until he leaps out the window. In "High Heels" it was Victoria Abril's confession on the newscast, when she admits to being the author of the murder she has just announced. In "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!", Antonio Banderas' declaration , after he has tied and immobilized Victoria Abril: "I'm twenty-three years old and I have fifty thousand pesetas. I am alone in the world, I'd like to be a good husband to you and a good father to your children."
The first thing I wrote for "The Flower of My Secret," that I urgently wanted to see projected on the screen, was the husband's visit. In the eight versions I wrote of the script, "the visit" is a block that has barely changed, it came out all at once. It includes everything from when the husband rings the bell until he disappears down the stairway's landing.
THE GOODBYE LOOK
The stairs that lead him away from Leo sound like bells tolling for the dead. And that is precisely what they announce, the death of their love.
Leaning on the corner of the landing, Marisa-Leo listens paralyzed to Paco's steps. One by one, step by step, two floors of an old Madrid building, leading to the street. And she holds it in piercing close up that lasts as long as the scene would last in real time. It's the torrential goodbye look.
I did not want to remove a single frame, a single step, a single tear.
From that moment on Leo and Paco walk in opposite directions. the same steps that lead Paco to a new life lead Leo towards death. Leo has to kill the love she feels for Paco, and the only way she can do it is to kill herself, the inseparable container of that love.
THE VOICE OF LIFE
When Leo lies down and closes her eyes to the world, after taking a lethal dose of tranquilizers, at the very moment in which her conscience begins to turn dark, the phone rings. It's her mother. She has had a fight with her sister (with whom she lives in a Madrid neighborhood) and she calls Leo to complain and say goodbye. She wants to go to her village, flee from Madrid..."I would have liked so much to say goodbye to you..." The mother's voice sounds depressed as it is recorded on the answering machine. Leo can barely move, she opens her eyes, the phone is too far away, a long hallway separates her from the living room where the answering machine is. the mother's sad voice travels down the hallway like a breath of air, it arrives at the bedroom's door and shakes the weakened conscience of the daughter until it makes her react.
For many years I have had the temptation to make a movie about my mother. The idea came up during a conversation had with one of my sisters: "Mother has asked me to take her to see a psychiatrist. She doesn't want to go crazy like her aunts," my sister said. "Mother is not crazy," I told her, what she wants is to talk. "Yes, but I can't be chattering away with her all day," my sister protested with reason.
I had never thought of it, but that conversation with my sister revealed to me the solitude of my widowed mother and her indirect search for an interlocutor. And I thought I could do something about it. I have discovered my mother almost casually, listening to her while she talks to other people.
For example, when I was preparing "Women..." I discovered that she had worn black since she was three years old until she turned thirty. We were in the "Corte Ingles" (a Madrid department store) looking for the dress she would wear in the film, (she played the part of a news anchor woman) when I heard her say to the saleswoman who was taking care of us and who insisted on dark colors: "Give me something colorful, I don't want dark dresses, I've spent my life wearing black dresses. Since I was three, when my father died, until I was pregnant with this one (pointing to me) I went straight from one mourning period to another."
I didn't make any comment then, but the discovery shook me. I had never imagined that my mother wore black during my gestation. I deduced that I was a reaction against the cruel tradition which she had been a victim of. That in spite of the blackness of her dress my mother was gestatiny inside her revenge against black: me, someone whose whole life would be determined by color, and who would express himself through its excess. When I heard her talk to the saleswoman, I understood the reason for my natural tendency for bright colors.
After speaking to my sister I thought I should accompany my mother for a few days, simply listen to her. The summer was the perfect time because she spends it in the village. I would go to the village and would take a camera with me to record all of her words because I don't trust my memory.
But I didn't do it and I think I never will. Something more complex than laziness prevents me from it. But the idea is still there. It comes and goes. Lately, two films reminded me of it: "The Quince Tree Sun" (Victor Erice) and "Through the Olive Trees" (Abbas Kiarostami) made me feel again the need to get together with my mother and make a movie with her words. I suppose it was the exciting sharpness, the basic emotion that both of those films breathe, which inspired and motivated me. If I were to make a film about "my mother's words", Erice's and Kiarostami's style would be the ideal one. But I didn't do it. I didn't even try it, instead I shot "The Flower of My Secret."
I didn't go to the village in the summer, but I made Leo go with her mother to Almagro, a village that is thirty kilometers away from my own and which represent the quintessence of everything in La Mancha. I selected for their arrival a street which is very similar to the one my mother lives. And I wrote for Chus Lampreave dialogues that I had heard my mother say a thousand times. And I photographed the fields of red earth, infinite, struck directly to the sky. Fields of La Mancha without horizon. And the ash colored olive trees. And Chus recites as they are arriving in Almagro, "My village," a poem my mother still recites.
And Leo recovers her desire to survive under the patio's grapevine, roots in the wind that indicate where she has come from, the first door she had to cross before walking out on the blinding white street.
LIKE A COW WITHOUT A COWBELL
Without knowing it, the initial "husband's visit" has been the pretext for making my most Manchegan film, since consciously I would never have made it. The pain suffered by the abandoned Leo has transported me, without previous permission, to my origins. And the effect has been as unexpected as it has been balsamic. I sense too that the film about "my mother's words" is contained within "The Flower of My Secret." And I'm not referring to the unstoppable and drastic verbosity of the Chus Lampreave character.
There is a sense that synthesizes in a special way the film didn't make: through the embroidered curtains (I should point out that Almagro is the "Cradle of Female Crafts", the only place in La Mancha--which is equivalent to saying the only place in the world--where the woman still sit out in the sun to do embroidery with "bolillos." By hand. Sheets. Curtains. Table cloths. Handkerchiefs. They spend a lifetime doing it.) Jacinta, Leo's mother walks up to the bed where Leo is lying, pale and listless. The mother senses Leo's drama and she laments: "How sad, my child, that so young you are already like a cow without a cowbell!"
There is no comic aspect to this comparison at all. In response to Leo's look of incomprehension, the mother explains,"...lost, without course or bearing, with no one to control you...like me...I too am like a cow without a cowbell, but at my age that is normal. When a woman is left by her husband, because he has died or has left with another woman, which is the same in any case, we must go back to the place where we were born. Visit the saint's chapel, sit outside with the neighbors, pray with them, even if we are not believers, because otherwise we will be lost like a cow without a cowbell..."
Leo looks at her mother and sees herself reflected in her. For different reasons they are both alone.
THE FEMALE SOLITUDE
That is the subject of the film, of the one I didn't make and of "The Flower": Solitude.
I was born during a bad period for Spain, but a very good one for cinema. I'm referring to the fifties. I was only a few years old when I first stepped inside a village cinema. It was similar to the one that appears in "The Spirit of the Beehive," if my memory does not betray me and a movie theatre does in fact appear in that film by Victor Erice. With the passing of time, I have noticed that the memories I have of films which had an impact on me do not usually coincide with the original films, but rather with what viewing them provoked in me.
To that first village cinema, besides a chair, I also brought a small tin filled with embers, to fight off the cold during the projection. Years later, the heat from that improvised brazier has become the paradigm of what films meant to me during that period.
When I was eleven years old, in Extremadura, there was a cinema on the same street as the school where I studied. At this school the priests tried to form my spirit, deforming it with religious tenacity. Fortunately, a little further up, on the same street, in the theatre stalls, I reconciled with the world, with my world. A world dominated by perverse emotions, to which I was sure I belonged. Very early in my life, when I was eleven or twelve, I was forced to choose, and I did so with the forcefulness of inexperience. If I were doomed to hell for watching "Johnny Guitar," "Picnic," and "Splendor in the Grass," or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," I had no alternative but to accept such punishment. I did not know what genres were, but without a doubt, my genetic code was branded in burning red, like a cow, with the stigma of the provincial film buff. I could not help but being more sensitive to the voice of Tennessee Williams, coming from the lips of Liz Taylor, Paul Newman or Marlon Brando, then to the drooling whispers of my Spiritual Director. For me there was no doubt. The calling of the light, projected in my eyes as the reflection of the movie screen, was much stronger than any other calling.
What I didn't know was that decades later some of the images projected on the screens of my childhood would bear my signature and would be marked by those first few films in which Tennessee Williams was my true Spiritual Director.
THE BED AND ITS SURROUNDINGS
In a love story, the Bed is very important (relatively so, because lovers only need to have their bodies at hand to express themselves as such, and can do so on any surface) but in a story where the love is gone the Bed is essential. Its lack of use is very eloquent, and it serves as the best thermometer to measure the temperature of the relationship.
In "The Flower of My Secret" there is only one Great Bed Scene between Leo and her husband,but they never get to lie on it. The bed only serves as a witness.
Paco has just arrived from Brussels, Leo leads him to the bedroom, talking endlessly, eating him in her hands, but he wants to take a shower before anything else, claiming to be sweaty from the voyage...Leo and her husband revolve around the bed, while she unbuttons his shirt, one button after another, reciting the rosary of her immediate desires to the best of the unbuttoned buttons: "...first you shower, since you are so interested ...(first button)...then we fuck (second button)...then, we rest (third button)...then we fuck again (fourth button) and then, whatever God wills! (fourth button, shirt off). All around the bed, as if they are standing next to an altar. An altar that will become an abbys as deep as the Grand Canyon, and equally dangerous.
After the shower (during which Leo waits with the towel in her hands and hungry eyes), a brutal discussion emerges, like a tropical storm...Paco explains that he does not have a full day's permit, as he promised, but only a two-hour leave, after which he has to go back to the airport. Leo roars with frustration. But Paco is a soldier, and he responds "I don't have to explain to you what my obligations are." "You are my husband," Leo retorts. "Do I need to explain to you what your obligations are to me?" The discussion heats up in the bedroom, while Paco puts on his clean underwear. The Bed is witness to the enormous abyss which has opened between the couple.
Mute, intact and enormous, the bed only welcomes Leo's buttocks, when she sits with her back to Paco and, with the monotony of pain which has been simmering for months, confesses her opinion of the Peace Mission which separates them: "You went to resolve a war fleeing from the one you had here, in your own home, and in this war I am the only victim." Leo remains sitting, with her back to him. She doesn't know that he is not even listening to him anymore. Leo goes from being a Williams character, one of those strong- willed women, full of reason even while they make deafening mistakes, to being a Cocteau character: an abandoned woman even when she has before her her object of desires, as that object has fallen asleep ("Le Bel Indifferent") or is simply not there. I rehearsed the scene with the actors to the level of torture. After this process my only problem was what to put over the Bed. It may seem like a small thing, but it was not only an aesthetic problem.
The image placed over the Bed's headboard dominates the room, watches over our dreams, stands guard at the door of our intimacy, symbolizes something which we believe in, something that gives us confidence, gives us shelter and protects us. It is a sacred place. As my characters were not fervent believers, deciding what should go over he headboard was a delicate decision. At least I got the idea of placing a large map of Spain, framed with gilded care. One of those maps, with sky blue seas, in front of which we posed for our school pictures.
I never had a chance to pose for that picture, I wasn't given it, and I feel as if a prized toy had been taken away from me, which I had a right to have like any other child. I think the day on which mine was to be taken I couldn't go to school because I was to emigrate with my family to Extremadura, in search of prosperity.
My bad relationship with geography carried on to my school in Extremadura. With the salesians I only learned to be fearful and to sing precious masses in Latin. I was the soloist of well reputed children's chorus. In order to rehearse I was exempt from geography classes. At the end of the school year, I got a passing grade for nothing. I grew up with the conviction that the universe was a fantasy. Fifteen years later I started to travel frantically, but blindly, always unconscious of the distance of the place that I visited, surprised and marvelled that they existed.
I mention all of this to explain to what point geography and maps have always signified for me something marvelous, mysterious and out of reach. For that reason I placed a map above Leo and Paco's bed.
One only feels protected by those things one does not know (isn't that religion, after all?), those things which our ignorance renders fascinating. That which we lack, or we didn't have in its time. I have taken from God and his saints the place that corresponds to them, and we have replaced them with a political map (and that knowledge) to which I never had access to as a child, and which was called to preside over the mother-scene of "The Flower of my Secret".