The sexual melodrama Broken Embraces is like an onion; Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar has given the film many layers to peel through, but there's not much left in the middle. Instead, it's a cornucopia of insightful ideas and homages to other films, none of which find a way to cohere into anything articulate or meaningful. This, Almodóvar's longest film, is also his least compelling.
Once upon a time Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar) was a famous director, beloved in his native Spain for his penetrating and absorbing films. Then a terrible car accident left him blind. Out of the tragedy, Harry Caine was born, once a playful pseudonym the director used when evading the paparazzi, now an alternate persona within which to hide from the past. Though Harry's mind was unharmed in the crash, he is the victim of amnesia all the same, self-imposed though it may be. The memory of that unspeakable night is too wrenching to bear; Harry lost far more than his sight in the crumpled shell of steel and glass.
Harry still makes the most of life (and the beautiful women he encounters), and is a screenwriter thanks to the work that gets funneled his way from his former production assistant Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas), who transcribes his words. During one of their stints together, a series of events transpire that drive Diego to ask Harry about the time before the accident, fourteen years earlier. To his astonishment, Harry relents and weaves a tale of jealous business tycoon Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), his cuckolding mistress Lena (Penelope Cruz), his gay son (Rubén Ochandiano), and the one man who stumbled into their lives and bore witness to its absolute collapse: Mateo Blanco.
Films about filmmaking are usually deeply personal works for those making them and, like Icarus, often fly too close to the sun of narcissism. This is especially true in those films about directors (think Fellini's 8½, Truffaut's Day for Night or Allen's Hollywood Ending), pieces of art that unmask both the creative lifeforce and the diffidence of the artist behind the camera. They almost always reveal more about the director than he intends to divulge. We hope for such a revelation in Broken Embraces, but it never comes.
Where is Almodóvar in all of this? Perhaps he is to be found in Harry/Mateo, a man who admits in the opening narration that, "I was always tempted by the thought of being someone else. Living one life wasn't enough." But the more we get to know Harry, we realize he is an brokenembraces unfettered by Almodóvar's spark. Who then?
For Almodóvar, muse and artist are one—and find themselves embodied in the form of Cruz. When she is in front of the camera, she is nothing short of luminescent. Almodóvar is ravenously in love with her. His compositions are worshipful and have a reverence usually reserved for medieval religious iconography. But it is a pedestal from which, once planted, she never steps down. When she is off screen, so is he. As beautiful as Cruz is, we cannot gaze at her for two hours and call it a film. Though melodrama, an Almodóvar specialty, is identified by overwrought emotions, Broken Embraces can't even muster that intrinsic passion.
There is nothing wrong with Almodóvar's eye or his exquisite sense of balance, color, and composition. Almost every richly textured shot in the film is a miniature lesson in aesthetics. Nor can anyone deny he has something intelligent to say—the nature of film, fathers and sons, the crafting of persona, the power of image, even the macabre irony of a blind man in the service of a visual medium—though it is a meaning that remains constantly in motion and thus elusive.
This is a film within a film within a film, none of which are particularly moving, funny or effective. Throughout Broken Embraces we see characters not straight on, but reflected off other objects around them, warped imitations of the real thing. That is a good description of the film itself, an overlong, gorgeous looking but undeniably thin reflection of far better films in Almodóvar's own canon. The affection and emotional sincerity of such films as Talk to Her, Volver and All About My Motheris missing here. While Almodóvar echoes many other voices—from Hepburn to Hitchcock, Rossellini to Bunuel—he never finds his own.
Almodóvar reveals himself here to be infatuated with appearances rather than internal beauty or motivations, an appropriate motif in a story about people assuming other identities, but hardly appropriate for the man directing them. We are forced to wonder if the characters' skin-deep obsessions are not an intentional critique, but rather a manifestation of the director's own misplaced fixations. If he cannot be bothered to find out what makes his characters tick, how can we?Discussion starters
- The first time we see Harry, he's having casual sex with a stranger. What does this say about him? Does this flippant intimacy put his relationship with Lena in doubt, or is it a direct result of how she exited his life? Is he finding fulfillment in such exchanges?
- Throughout the film we see characters reflected in various surfaces. What is Almodóvar trying to say about our real selves versus what we choose to show the world?
- Almodóvar plays with some interesting visual motifs within the film's set design. What do you make of the fact that Ernesto Martel's house is filled with paintings of guns and knives? Did you notice that Harry and Judit's apartments are festooned with crosses? What does this say about these characters, particularly the latter who profess no religious ideology in the film?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Broken Embraces is rated R for sexual content, language and some drug material. The film contains numerous sex scenes that begin almost as soon as the opening credits conclude. While none of them are particularly graphic (most rely on sound, rather than visuals), there is also a healthy smattering of female upper nudity and several racy conversations. One character is a call girl who becomes a kept mistress; another is the disturbed homosexual son of a domineering father. Alcohol and rave drugs are liberally consumed.
Photos © Sony Classics
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