Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar has always worshipped at the altar of the classic Hollywood melodrama. The earthly avatars of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Douglas Sirk have long watched over his art-house productions (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, High Heels, Kika, The Flower of My Secret, Live Flesh, All About My Mother). His latest effort, the self-referential movie industry meller Broken Embraces, is no exception. ... Except that it marks a minor turning point in Almodóvar’s career. This is Almodóvar at his most mature, his most serious. Gone are the drag queens, the sexy nuns and op-art wallpaper. There’s not a trace of camp in this cyclical, soap opera-heavy romance. And yet the film is still unmistakably Almodóvar, right down to the strong central performance by his longtime muse Penélope Cruz.
Cruz, of course, leads one of Almodóvar’s patented ensemble casts. As with many of the man’s films, this collection of vivid characters seems like a random handful of leaves tossed into a stream. At first, each is distinct, separate unto itself, with little clear connection to the others. Occasionally, two or three will get caught a whirlpool and spin off into a brief, tight orbit. But in the end, they all get pushed along by the same current, dashed against the same rocks and forced over the same waterfalls. In Broken Embraces, we’re introduced to a blind filmmaker, his longtime agent, her loyal son, a millionaire businessman, his estranged son and a pivotal secretary-turned-mistress-turned-actress. What ties them all together?
The story of Broken Embraces starts in the present, with our writer-director Harry Caine (veteran Spanish actor Lluís Homar) looking to kick-start his long-dormant career after nursing an unspecified, long-brewing heartache. Left in the care of his agent’s son (Tamar Novas), Harry starts spilling old secrets.
Although Broken Embraces reads as one of Almodóvar’s more serious films, he’s still clearly having fun on screen.
Cue the flashbacks. Fifteen years ago—more popular, less bald and fully sighted—Harry is preparing to work on his first comedy, the intriguingly titled Girls and Suitcases. Against the better judgments of his protective agent (Blanca Portillo from Volver), Harry hires unknown beauty Lena (Cruz). He is smitten with her, of course, but she’s the secretary-turned-mistress of controlling rich old dude Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez, Goya's Ghosts). Before long, Martel is producing Harry’s film, and Harry is sleeping with his leading lady—a situation that can’t possibly end well.
We know, of course, that it doesn’t, since we spend a good amount of time in the present day—a world in which Harry is blind, bitter and sans Lena. The mystery, then, is what exactly happened on the set of Girls and Suitcases 15 year ago? Almodóvar lays it out slowly and meticulously, adding plenty of nods to the trickily written, formally composed cinema of Alfred Hitchcock along the way. (Michael Powell’s 1960 thriller Peeping Tom is another blatantly referenced influence.) Of course, since this is Almodóvar, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are two or three more intertwined storylines at play here, each with its own layers to add and secrets to spill.
Although Broken Embraces reads as one of Almodóvar’s more serious films (like 2002’s Talk to Her), he’s still clearly having fun on screen. When we finally start seeing glimpses of Harry’s long-lost masterpiece Girls and Suitcases, for example, the “joke” is apparent. The film-within-a-film looks like vintage Almodóvar, complete with candied color palette and madcap script.
It’s funny seeing Cruz in both Broken Embraces and Nine—two back-to-back film industry dramas in which she plays the sexy girlfriend of a struggling, womanizing filmmaker. Broken Embraces is clearly the better film. Whereas Nine is inconsequential, miscast and littered with forgettable songs, Broken Embraces is neatly lined with unabashed melodrama, lush camerawork and narrative suspense. The scattered story takes some time to come together, but like all Almodóvar films, it coalesces quite neatly. Almodóvar has always had a passion for filmmaking. With Broken Embraces, he’s finally found a way to combine love, art and love of art into one heady package.