Broken Embraces

Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s latest hymn to his favourite leading lady Penelope Cruz is a labyrinthine web of story and genre that straddles two distinct timeline, the mid-1990s and today, and features a dozen or so interconnected characters. A lavish, noir-influenced melodrama told in flashbacks, Broken Embraces opens with an introduction to Mateo (Lluís Homar), who was once a successful film director but is latterly a blind, cranky recluse who writes screenplays under the name Harry Caine. His protective agent Judit (Planca Portillo) keeps a close eye on him, employing her son Diego (Tamar Novas) to assist him in his Madrid apartment.

When an encounter with a bitter director opens up old wounds for Mateo, he recalls a period a decade before, when he fell in love with Lena (Cruz), a beautiful, sad-eyed young actress, on the set of what would be his final film, Girls & Suitcases. A former secretary, Lena has traded on her charms to win her debut part, helped by the fact that she is the mistress of powerful businessman and producer Ernesto (Jose Luis Gomez). When filming starts, the jealous Ernesto places his son Ray (Rubén Ochandiano) on the set, in the guise of shooting a “making-of” documentary, and discovers the affair. The lovers flee to Lanzarote, where they are happy together for a while before fate intervenes.

That description doesn’t begin to encompass the twists and turns in Almodóvar’s lavish, heady story, which gathers together a neat pile of cinematic clichés then cleverly subverts them, one by one. Like Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Broken Embraces is a film about films; a valentine to cinema awash with references and stylistic nods. The first half of the film sees Almodóvar pay homage to the gloomy noirs of the 1940s before the tension gives way and the story becomes a swooning melodrama, with an explicit reference to Roberto Rossellini’s neo-realist romance Journey To Italy. And just like Tarantino, Almodóvar relishes in his own fetishes and fixations, revisits his back-catalogue to turn the vibrant film-within-a-film into a re-imagining of his breakout success, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

But for all the flounce and bright-eyed bravado, there are dark depths in Broken Embraces, sober shadows that fall across the story and add a painful edge to the heaving emotions. Almodóvar fills the screen with repeating patterns of colour; the static in a television, a fluttering curtain, a pockmarked hillside. He repeatedly frames his characters within the frame, through a camera lens or against a window, underlining their scripted destines in the artificial, claustrophobic world of movies. Perhaps the director is acknowledging the agony he puts his hapless characters through, how lonely they must be before he brings them together and the suffering he inflicts on them when, for the sake of the story, they must separate again.

The film is full of fine performances, Cruz in particular, who attacks her first post-Oscar role with gusto, seamlessly delivering whoever Almodóvar requires of her at any given time; grieving daughter, timid secretary, gilded-cage wife or fleeing lover. Although the time-shifting narrative suffers a few inelegant bumps, watching Almodóvar juggle his stories, his characters and his genres is a joy, even if he cannot decide when he has reached the end. Restless, rangy and unwaveringly seductive, there is much to savour here.

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