To compare Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” to Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, “Broken Embraces” may raise a few eyebrows. “Basterds,” one hand, is a bloody, tense, World War II revisionist phantasmagoria, and “Embraces” is a touching, satiric melodrama which jumps back and forth between the mid-1990’s and 2008. But on the other hand, both live in worlds where men and women are defined by cinema, one in which film is a living, breathing entity, and if necessary film can be used as a weapon.
This film is built off of duality, and mirror images. Opening with a credit sequence featuring the stand-ins for stars Penelope Cruz and Lluís Homar helping the behind the scenes crew ready a shot. Cruz and Homar step into frame, the stage is set, now the false image of reality is complete, and the film can begin.
At first we are introduced to Homar’s character, a blind screenwriter, who used to direct films as well before he lost his sight in a terrible accident, which also claimed the life of his beloved Lena, a luminous Penelope Cruz. Before the accident he went by his given name, Mateo Blanco, but now that he can no longer create the images that defined his life, he will only answer to a handle straight from a Noir movie, Harry Caine, the pseudonym that he signed had used to all his work.
When we are introduced to Lena she as well is living a double life. During the day she is an assistant to wealthy industrialist Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gómez), but after hours Magdalena, her name dripping with allegory, moonlights as a high price prostitute so that she can pay for her ailing father’s bills. When Martel learns of her second job he is the first in line as a client. Lena is appalled, however when her father takes a turn for the worse Martel is willing to help out. Cut to years later where Lena has moved in with Martel as his lover, obviously blurring the lines between whore and saint.
The film cuts between two time periods – 2008 where blind Harry Caine is writing a new script with Diego (Tamar Novas), the son of his old Production Supervisor, friend, and care taker, Judit (Blanca Portillo); and 1994 where Mateo meets Lena, falls in love at first sight, and casts her in his new comedy “Girls and Suitcases,” an obvious take on Almodóvar’s own hilarious “Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” When Diego accidentally overdoses on GHB at a club Caine becomes his caretaker, and the bed ridden youth urges his elder to tell him why Judit hates Ernesto Martel so much. This touches off a near Proustian reminiscence in flashback leading Caine to recover a lot of his forgotten memories of Lena.
Like a lot of Almodóvar’s films “Broken Embraces” is filled with melodrama with hints of a dark thriller, part soap opera, part Noir. Everyone in this film is out for some sort of revenge, vengeance being another sort of mirror image, the punishment reflecting the original deed, an eye for an eye. In 2008 Martel’s son, Ray X (Ruben Ochendiando) wants Caine to help him make a film so good that it will destroy the legacy of his father, a revenge for the elder Martel’s hatred of the younger for his homosexuality. Judit has hid facts about the accident that claimed Lena’s life from Mateo/Harry to get back at him for his rejection of her ten years prior. But the most interesting revenge is Martel’s revenge against Mateo because of his relationship with his mistress, Lena.
In 1994 when Lena is cast in “Girls and Suitcases” Martel signs on as a financing producer so he can keep her close, and enlists his son to make a behind-the-scenes documentary in order to watch Lena. Almodóvar uses this documentary as both a weapon of violation, and also the method of Martel’s own defeat. When the relationship finally goes sour Lena and Mateo run off together, and Martel uses his control over “Girls with Suitcases” to ruin the movie, and the release of the poorly made film serves as his revenge against Mateo and Lena for breaking his heart.
Beautifully in Almodóvar’s world film is not only just a weapon, but can be a healer too. In 2008 when Caine stumbles across the tragic cut of “Girls and Suitcases” on cable he becomes inspired to fix the damage Martel did to his final film. With the help of Judit and Diego, Caine restores the picture to the one he envisioned, not only as a tribute to his dead lover, but also as a catharsis in getting over that event, and reclaiming his original personality, Mateo.
This being the forth film in which they worked together, watching this picture it becomes obvious as to why Almodóvar would use Cruz as his muse. Penelope Cruz is truly in her element in Almodóvar’s films, sexy, engaging, and gut-punch powerful, once again proving her talent in her native language far surpasses it in English (“Volver” vs. “Vanilla Sky”). Her Lena is not only drop dead beautiful, but the depth of character Cruz gives her portrayal was a complete necessity to sell the film’s love triangle, and the extremes to which she drives the men in her life.
Also here in full force is Almodóvar’s directorial skill. The picture is perfectly paced, with its slow build from the almost comedic beginning to the darker middle to the dramatic finish, this could have been three movies in one. But it all works seamlessly. As the film switches tone Almodóvar guides the audience with a controlling and comforting hand, walking through this world that looks eerily like their own. The images on screen, on screen, are the avenues to salvation and destruction for all the characters in “Broken Embraces,” and judging from the intimacy he invokes with his lead character, Harry Caine/Mateo Blanco, maybe those images do the same for Almodóvar himself
El Luchador Rating: 4 out of 5
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)