(No longer in theaters)
Sony Pictures Classics
Nov 20, 2009
Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces is a lush, deeply romantic noir dense with nods to films past, yet it plays as if it sprung fully formed from the director’s unconscious. The movie centers on the making of a movie—of two movies, actually, a feature and a behind-the-scenes documentary. But this isn’t a movie about movies. Cinema is so woven into Almodóvar’s DNA that he goes past pastiche. Art and life have become thrillingly fused.
The story, shorn of its convoluted frame, is a conventional tragic love triangle. But that frame—with its echoes, parallels—is the true story. The narrator (Lluís Homar), a blind screenwriter, has abandoned his real name, Mateo, and adopted his noirish pen name, Harry Caine, because “Mateo” died years ago. “Harry” is broken and cynical, his only contacts the occasional female pickup; his lovelorn producer, Judit (Blanca Portillo); and her teenage son, Diego (Tamar Novas). When a bitter man who calls himself “Ray X” (Rubén Ochandiano) tries to enlist Harry to co-write “a son’s revenge on his father’s memory,” the film jumps back fourteen years, to when Mateo (not blind) is smitten by Lena (Penélope Cruz), the girlfriend of a rich businessman (and Ray X’s hated father), Martel (José Luís Gómez). Martel agrees to finance Mateo’s film as a vehicle for Lena, then dispatches his son to document its making—but really to spy. In his screening room, Martel watches silent footage of the growing love between Lena and Mateo while a lip-reader provides a shattering soundtrack.
Almodóvar breaks cinema down to its component parts (image, sound, and editing) not to create some postmodern essay on illusion versus reality. All that fracturing and doubling and mediating suggests how Lena and Mateo’s relationship is attacked and splintered from all sides. (That’s the meaning of the movie’s ugly but apt title.) Mateo’s film, Girls and Suitcases, is a comedy modeled on Almodóvar’s deliriously campy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and when the brutal, vindictive Martel mangles it in the editing room, it’s both an artistic crime and a metaphor for the violence visited on the increasingly isolated lovers. Mateo and Lena flee to the barren, volcanic landscape of Lanzarote, which is sublime but redolent of death.
I fear I’ve made Broken Embraces sound difficult, whereas Almodóvar is above all a great entertainer. A director like Atom Egoyan employs self-conscious framing devices to question the medium, whereas Almodóvar uses them to pull you in, to heighten the emotions the way Hitchcock does in Vertigo. His trump card is Cruz. It’s easy to see why he’s so mad about her. She’s gorgeous, she wears clothes like a dream, and when she’s coiffed to resemble Audrey Hepburn, she actually pulls it off! And yet she’s also astoundingly goofy-looking. Her face reads from a mile away, as if her passion had inflated her features to cartoon proportions. There’s nothing cartoonish about her acting, though, which is more mysteriously contained than ever. This movie is utterly irresistible.