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The Muse

With Broken Embraces, Almodóvar gets his most ravishing performance from Penélope Cruz.

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Illustration by Josue Evilla  

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.

Lukas Moodysson’s Mammoth creeps up on you and gets into your bloodstream. The thrust is similar to Babel, with its suggestion that the world has gotten smaller but the distances between humans more vast. Unlike Babel, though, it isn’t a crock. Its four plotlines feed off and intensify one another. Gael García Bernal plays Leo, a child-man who became absurdly wealthy designing online gaming. At the start, he flies off on a private plane from New York to Bangkok to make a business deal, leaving behind his wife, Ellen (Michelle Williams), an emergency-room surgeon, and his 8-year-old daughter, Jackie. Ellen barely sees Jackie: The girl is left in the care of a nanny, Gloria (Marife Necesito), who left her own two young sons in the Philippines to earn money to give them a better life. As those boys cry for their absent mother, Gloria (wracked by maternal guilt) functions as a loving surrogate mom to Jackie, while Ellen (also wracked by maternal guilt) labors to save the life of a boy stabbed by his own mother. Leo comes face to face with young Thai women forced into lives of prostitution. Too many films exploit the perils faced by children when the social contract is ruptured, but Mammoth earns its cruel, sensationalistic turns and then some. In the flawless cast, Williams is the most affecting, as a selfless woman doing so much right yet, like her world, profoundly out of balance.

Mass hysteria has turned The Twilight Saga: New Moon—a turgid romantic horror film that under different circumstances would barely attract notice—into the biggest event of the millennium. Which isn’t such a bad thing. I loved watching it with an audience that screamed when Bella (Kristen Stewart) and the vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) first appear. The essential dullness came later.

The last one, Twilight, was fun but shallow compared with the momentous adolescent hormonal feelings flooding Stephenie Meyer’s novel. In New Moon, director Chris Weitz tries to slow things down, which means the unrequited lovers stare longingly at each other and just … won’t … say … their … lines. The hook for young girls is the fantasy of men fighting over them. First, two vampires fight over Bella, then two werewolves. Then werewolves fight vampires. Then a vampire fights more vampires. Bella saves Edward, Edward saves Bella, and the Native American werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner) tries to save Bella from Edward. Whereas Edward is a pale aesthete with the highest brow in movies, Jacob is a dark, hairy biker dude with a very low brow and a trapezius the size of a watermelon. He looks like a Nautilized caveman.

Stewart is lovely and believable, but Pattinson is better in gorgeous repose than when he speaks. The movie has a few good flourishes, like the werewolves’ whooshy overhead chase of an evil red-haired vampire woman. But Weitz’s pacing is so limp you’re going to need the electricity generated by a live audience to keep from yelling, “Hurry it up!”

Broken Embraces
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar.
Sony Pictures Classics. R.

Mammoth
Directed by Lukas Moodysson.
IFC Films. NR.

New Moon
Directed by Chris Weitz.
Summit Entertainment. PG-13.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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