Director: Pedro Almodovar
Madrid, the present. Harry Caine (real name: Mateo Blanco), a blind screenwriter makes love to a young woman who helped him cross the road. Judit, his assistant, informs him that the newspaper reports the death of Ernesto Martel, a powerful businessman. In Madrid, 1992, a young receptionist, Lena, is troubled by her father’s illness – Her employer, Martel arranges for Lena’s father to be treated in the best private clinic. She becomes his mistress. Back in the present, Harry is contacted by a man named Ray X, who wants to work on a film about a father who had ruined his son’s life forever. This is Martel’s son.
In 1994, Lena is now an aspiring actress and auditions for a film to be directed by Mateo, ‘Girls and Suitcases’, which is financed by Martel. Lena and Mateo embark on an affair on set, even though Martel’s son, Ernesto Jr. has been sent to keep an eye on Lena. As Lena tells Martel she’s leaving him, he pushes her down a staircase, severely injuring her. Lena promises not to reveal the truth and to stay with Martel as long as he allows Mateo to finish and release the film as he wishes. Once healed, Lena and Mateo holiday in Lanzarote, whilst an angry Martel butchers and releases the film; a flop. Lena and Mateo are involved in a car crash, which kills Lena and blinds Mateo, who now calls himself Harry. Back in the present, Judit reveals she told Martel where he and Lena were. Ray X helps Harry, who now reclaims the name Mateo re-edit ‘Girls and Suitcases’.
The most stylish and financially viable of all European auteurs, the late career of Pedro Almodovar has been more mature and adult than his previous kitschy, chaotic features. Critics worldwide have declared the likes of ‘All About My Mother’ (1999) and ‘Talk To Her’ (2002) as unadulterated masterpieces, whilst ‘Bad Education’ (2004) and ‘Volver’ (2006); the latter featuring a powerhouse, Academy Award-worthy performance by Penelope Cruz were similarly well received. I’m personally slightly more agnostic about Almodovar’s ‘classics’. It’s fine to be influenced by Hollywood ‘women’s pictures’ and noir thrillers if you’re bringing something of yourself to the film, contributing your own original ideas. I think Almodovar certainly does this, but he often seems so in thrall to the likes of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ or ‘Mildred Pierce’ for instance, and wanting to do these films such justice, that the lines between borrowing and creativity often become blurred. More often than not, he’s on the right side of this line, but there’s always a concern that he’s backing himself into a corner. Fortunately though, there’s no sign that Almodovar has hit a creative rut if ‘Broken Embraces’ is anything to go by.
Never has Almodovar been more referential to cinema, and not just Hollywood but also himself than in ‘Broken Embraces’. Cinematic allusions are everywhere; whether it’s the pseudonym of the main protagonist – Harry Caine – a portmanteau perhaps of Harry Lime and Charles Foster Kane, the reference to the noir classic ‘Kiss of Death’ (1947), when Martel pushes Lena down the stairs, or the various films that are watched or discussed. Lena and Mateo watch ‘Voyage to Italy’ (1954) on television, which contributed the title of this film. Diego (Judit’s son) and Harry (as he became known after his blindness) discuss ‘Magnificent Obsession’ (1954) – itself a film where a major character becomes blind after an accident, as well as ‘Lift to the Scaffold’ (1958). These are films that have had direct influence upon Almodovar his entire career, though perhaps the work of Sirk is of most obvious amongst his work – the rich colours, dizzying visuals, the constant lack of reality/presence of artificiality has not only influenced Almodovar, but Fassbinder, Haynes and many others. What’s more, Almodovar is more self-aware than ever; the comedy ‘Girls and Suitcases’ borrows from ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ (1988), his first international success. There’s a clear extent to which Mateo is based on Almodovar himself. Almodovar is a contrast to that other renowned borrower of the history of cinema, Tarantino. Almodovar doesn’t allow what he’s borrowing to consume his own ideas.
‘Broken Embraces’ is also a pivotal film about the film making process, although this is not just because of what we see going on ‘behind the scenes’, but also because of the fact we have Ernesto Jr./Ray X operating as a ‘witness’, filming the ‘making of’ ‘Girls and Suitcases’ (whilst conveniently spying for his father), running parallel to us, the audience, watching the film being made. Ernesto Jr.’s voyeuristic gaze; at one point Mateo even mentions he reminds him of ‘Peeping Tom’, sits parallel to ours, but as though we watch objectively and he watches subjectively. We’re never quite sure what his interest in undertaking this ‘documentary’ is though. To gain the approval of his father? Ernesto Jr. is an awkward, effeminate young man whose relationship with his homophobic father is at breaking point at this early stage. The wounds of having two parents who bemoan giving birth to a “fairy” are obvious. Even in his twenties, Ernesto Jr. is a twice-divorced father but has now shacked up with another man. Does this suggest a lack of comfort with his sexuality or whether he was bullied by his father into marrying and having children? Or maybe just finding a way to fit into society? Certainly the film he wishes to make with Harry is an act of revenge against his father.
The constant jumps between times and parallel narratives often mean that pivotal moments of interest are overlooked. We don’t always understand the motivations of characters and because of this, often find it difficult to empathise with them. For instance, there’s a good decade between the death of Lena and Ernesto Martel’s death. He apparently was brought down in a financial scandal in this intervening period, and presumably we’re told this so that we equate his financial corruption with his moral corruption. But once Lena dies, he becomes a peripheral character. It’s not just the case with Martel though; there’s very little that links the two time periods in which the film operates.
Anchoring ‘Broken Embraces’ is yet another superb performance by Penelope Cruz, who constantly looks luminously beautiful, though she possesses vulnerability and self-determination at the same time. Not content solely being Martel’s mistress (which we assume was because her father was ill), she wants to provide for herself and rejects her wealthy lifestyle for true love with Mateo. The rest of the cast provide more subtle, low-key performances, but none of which should be overlooked. As expected, Almodovar’s film is slick, stylish entertainment, with impressive cinematography from new DoP Rodrigo Prieto, whose works still harks back to previous Almodovar features. Coming into the film with lesser expectations than the director’s loyal fanbase will, I was pleasantly surprised. The labyrinth plot more or less held up, though the two time periods could be adjoined more successfully and whilst the balance of style and substance sits precariously, the end result is dizzying and often breathtaking.