A new tale of arousal from Pedro Almodóvar
by Jason Blair
BROKEN EMBRACES (LOS ABRAZOS ROTOS): Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Cinematography, Rodrigo Prieto. Music, Alberto Iglesias. Starring Penélope Cruz, Lluís Homar, Blanca Portillo, José Luis Gómez, Rubén Ochandiano and Tamar Novas. Sony Pictures Classics, 2009. R. 127 minutes.
A richly colored film with a black and white soul, Broken Embraces furthers Pedro Almodóvar’s work with melodrama by introducing a film noir style. Broken Embraces is about a film director named Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar) who, having lost his sight — and a great deal more, by his trampled demeanor — re-christens himself Harry Caine and decides to write genre screenplays. Caine, a handsome man whose nom de plume nods to Orson Welles, is gently attended by his agent Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas).
In a film about the roles of our lifetimes, in particular the secrets we hide from those we love, the double meanings quickly accrue: Before long, a young film director named Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano) comes knocking. His name is nearly as blunt (X Ray, anyone?) as the manner in which he forces Harry to consider his script idea. Harry dismisses him, but in a neo-noir like Broken Embraces, Ray X’s appearance is the all-important gambit, the sudden twist setting off a drama about obsession, lust, jealousy and death, but most of all the making of films.
Much of Broken Embraces takes place in flashback. Ray X, Harry quickly realizes, is the estranged son of the wealthy financier Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), a gnomish, intensely jealous man whose mistress was the exquisite Lena Rivas (Penélope Cruz). Back in 1994, Lena, against the wishes of Ernesto, auditions for one of director Harry’s (then Mateo’s) films. She’s unremarkable, but the part is hers; by day, they nail down the finer points of her character and by night they nail down … you get the idea. Their affair is captured on tape by Ernesto Jr., whom the senior Ernesto has provided with a videocamera so that Lena will never be out of sight.
Tropes like “the camera doesn’t lie” soon leap to mind, as the pervy junior Ernesto grants himself an all-access pass to the affair. From there, things get very unpleasant for the couple, whose film-in-progress is called Girls and Suitcases. While we’re intended to recall Double Indemnity and other thrillers of that era, I couldn’t help likening the elder Ernesto to the Robert Blake character from the David Lynch wreck Lost Highway, even if most of Ernesto’s scheming takes place offscreen. The Ernestos, junior and senior, put the creep in creepy.
Unfortunately, the energy of the film draws down as Lena and Mateo go into hiding on Lanzaroate, because their fate has been sealed from the first kiss. When disaster strikes, it’s curiously ineffective; I found myself caring much less than I should have, in part because the outcome feels arbitrary. A long sequence follows in the present during which everything hitherto unexplained is laid bare by Harry’s agent Judit, who winds up being more intertwined than previously expected. While Judit reveals a film’s worth of surprises over dinner, nothing in the latter part of the film is as effective as the final cut to a long sequence of Girls and Suitcases, finally to be released by Harry/Mateo, which of all things turns out to be a remake of Almodóvar’s own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The whole enterprise is immediately fresh again, somehow arriving at nostalgia and originality at once.
Broken Embraces opens Friday, Jan. 15, at the Bijou.