Rais­ing Harry Caine

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Bro­ken Em­braces, noir-ish melo­dram­edy, rated R, in Span­ish with sub­ti­tles, Re­gal DeVar­gas, 3.5 chiles While I’m sure Span­ish film­maker Pe­dro Almod­ó­var is per­fectly ca­pa­ble of be­ing monog­a­mous, his mates must al­ways feel as though they are play­ing sec­ond fid­dle to his true love, film. Almod­ó­var has spent decades craft­ing love let­ters to his mis­tress, and while it’s not his finest mis­sive, Bro­ken Em­braces may be his most pas­sion­ate and rev­er­en­tial.

Lluís Ho­mar plays blind screen­writer Harry Caine (a name sug­ges­tive of both a spy novel’s hero and a vi­o­lent, tu­mul­tuous storm). Harry spends most of his days writ­ing; work­ing with his agent, Ju­dit (Blanca Por­tillo), and his as­sis­tant, Diego (Ta­mar No­vas); and se­duc­ing young women who help him cross the street. One morn­ing’s news an­nounces the death of a wealthy but cor­rupt busi­ness ty­coon named Ernesto Mar­tel (José Luis Gómez); later, an enig­matic young di­rec­tor named Ray X (Rubén Ochan­di­ano)— whose voice Harry rec­og­nizes— vis­its to dis­cuss col­lab­o­rat­ing on a film about Ray’s abu­sive fa­ther. Be­fore we get com­pletely lost in this con­fus­ing whirl­wind of char­ac­ters and de­tails, a se­ries of flash­backs be­gins. Four­teen years ago, we learn, Harry was a renowned film di­rec­tor named Ma­teo Blanco.

In th­ese flash­backs, we also meet Lena (Pené­lope Cruz), an as­pir­ing ac­tress who re­sorts to turn­ing tricks when her sec­re­tar­ial

job fails to bring in enough money to pay her ail­ing fa­ther’s hospi­tal bills. Lena puts her dra­matic skills to work and be­comes the mis­tress to her boss (Gómez), who adores her but treats her like a beau­ti­ful pet. Af­ter years as Ernesto’s kept woman, Lena ex­presses a de­sire to try her hand at act­ing again. She au­di­tions for a part in Ma­teo’s lat­est pro­duc­tion, but when she gets it, para­noid Ernesto in­sists on fi­nanc­ing the film and con­vinces his son (Ochan­di­ano) to fol­low Lena on the set un­der the pre­text of shoot­ing a “mak­ing-of” doc­u­men­tary. In pri­vate, Ernesto re­views the si­lent footage of Lena and Ma­teo fall­ing in love, as a lip reader watches with him and pro­vides a creepy, emo­tion­less voice-over. You can prob­a­bly sense that this isn’t go­ing to end well.

In many ways, Bro­ken Em­braces feels like vin­tage noir or a clas­sic thriller of the Hitch­cock­ian per­sua­sion. Almod­ó­var im­pec­ca­bly sets up ten­sion, spoon-feed­ing us in­for­ma­tion as his con­vo­luted story flashes for­ward and back, the seem­ingly un­re­lated bands beginning to over­lap. Al­berto Igle­sias’ score swirls, races, and swells, bring­ing to mind Bernard Her­rmann’s mu­sic for Ver­tigo and North by North­west. Almod­ó­var gives us bright red lips, skin-tight dresses, sexy stilet­tos, and a dra­matic spi­ral stair­case prac­ti­cally beg­ging for some­one to tum­ble down it. More than one char­ac­ter is known by more than one name. Cruz dons a se­ries of wigs and cos­tumes through which she con­jures up star­lets from Rita Hay­worth and Sophia Loren to Marilyn Mon­roe and Au­drey Hep­burn.

Cruz has been called Almod­ó­var’s muse, and I wouldn’t ar­gue. As in the other films they have made to­gether, she is clearly his fo­cus here, the eye of the storm, though we only see her char­ac­ter in flash­backs. The di­rec­tor elic­its some of her finest work, a sub­tle yet spell­bind­ing per­for­mance that Cameron Crowe andWoody Allen couldn’t sum­mon. We get a good glimpse of her ver­sa­til­ity— even watch­ing her pre­tend that she can’t act is a treat.

Vis­ually, the film is ravishing. Cin­e­matog­ra­pher Rodrigo Pri­eto makes crisp, ar­rest­ing use of color, par­tic­u­larly red (lips, dresses, shoes, and a ripe tomato, for ex­am­ple). This is Pri­eto’s first film with Almod­ó­var, and I hope it won’t be his last. The cam­era fix­ates on Cruz’s pho­to­genic face, of­ten in close-up: in one scene, an ex­hausted Lena looks into a bath­room mir­ror and de­clares, “I look aw­ful!”, and I couldn’t help but think that I’d be lucky to look so bad. Eye­catch­ing art and stylish fur­nish­ings adorn var­i­ous in­te­ri­ors, while the sur­real vol­canic land­scape of the is­land of Lan­zarote hints at the sub­sur­face con­flict that’s about to erupt. Even heaps of shred­ded pho­to­graphs— rem­nants of a lost, star-crossed love— pos­sess a kalei­do­scopic beauty.

Almod­ó­var turned 60 last year, and I sus­pect that with Bro­ken Em­braces, he was re­flect­ing on his life in film so far— the movie Ma­teo and Lena make to­gether bears an un­canny re­sem­blance to Almod­ó­var’s 1988 comedic clas­sic, Women on the Verge of a Ner­vous Break­down— as well as pay­ing homage to the Hol­ly­wood clas­sics that have in­spired him. He cer­tainly points out the way film al­lows us to ob­serve, from a comfortable dis­tance, things we might not oth­er­wise be privy to, how it turns us into voyeurs like Ernesto. He may even be mak­ing a blunted jab at ex­ec­u­tives, hav­ing made a pro­ducer the vil­lain of his story.

In the end, though, Almod­ó­var’s rev­er­ence for film cre­ates the one sig­nif­i­cant flaw of Bro­ken Em­braces. Amid his nos­tal­gia and the film’s in­tri­cate, some­what frac­tured struc­ture, it loses its heart. Lena, with her sundry cos­tumes and wigs, feels more like Almod­ó­var’s patch­work idea of a love in­ter­est, an ac­tress, or a mis­tress than a real, co­he­sive, di­men­sional woman. I was cer­tainly im­pressed by the film’s twists and turns, by the en­gross­ing per­for­mances, and by the breath­tak­ing vi­su­als. But at the end of such a grip­ping tale of love, ob­ses­sion, jeal­ousy, heart­break, and loss, I was sur­prised at not hav­ing shed a sin­gle tear.

Oh those


Pené­lope Cruz

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