Raising Harry Caine
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.