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Review: Broken Embraces [Los Abrazos Rotos]

Broken promises: Pedro Almodóvar's open Embraces
By PETER KEOUGH  |  December 22, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars


Broken Embraces [Los Abrazos Rotos] | Written and Directed by Pedro Almodóvar | with Penélope Cruz, Lluís Homar, Blanca Portillo, José Luis Gómez, Rubén Ochandiano, Tamar Novas, and Ángela Molina | Sony | Spanish | 127 minutes
No filmmaker generates narrative like Pedro Almodóvar. Five minutes into Broken Embraces and he's got half a dozen potential storylines spinning. A beautiful woman reads a newspaper article about a dead financier to a blind man, a filmmaker who in voiceover identifies himself as Harry Caine (it's a pseudonym he's taken on as his real name), and you know there's a lot more to the story than that. Harry (Lluís Homar) seduces the woman, and her story ends when Harry's agent, Judit (Blanco Portillo), and her son Diego (Tamar Novas) arrive, and then you wonder, what's their story? But before we find out about that, Harry and Diego discuss a screenplay Harry wants to write about Arthur Miller and his son with Down syndrome.

All this before we even get to the first flashback. Yet far from overwhelming, the multiplicity stimulates curiosity for more and a regret that only a few of these premises will survive to the end. And maybe not the best ones. In years past, Almodóvar's anarchic sense of the absurd drew him in funnier, more exuberant directions. These days, he tends more to self-conscious melancholy and detached bathos — Bergman by way of Douglas Sirk, with an emphasis on the lush, Candy Land palette of the latter.

That's the case with the main backstory, which dips deep into the glitzy abyss of classic Hollywood melodrama. It's 1992, and Lena (Penélope Cruz), a secretary by day and a call girl by night, has to come up with a lot of money to treat her cancer-ridden father. She taps into the latter profession, and her client turns out to be her day-job boss, Ernesto (José Luis Gómez). In short order he becomes her sugar daddy, indulging her whim to start an acting career by sending her to Mateo Blanco, who's the pre-blindness Harry Caine, and whose film Ernesto is financing. Lena ends up in the movie, and in Mateo/Harry's's bed.

As this storyline careers toward its operatic climaxes, flash-forwards return us to the further adventures of Judit, Diego, and the sightless Harry, as well as a loose cannon named "Ray X" whose attempt to get Harry to direct his screenplay keeps the whole matryoshka-doll sequence of flashbacks rolling. Despite all the confabulating, however, one can't help noticing that this, more than any previous Almodóvar effort, is a film about film. Or maybe a film about films about film. Back in 1992, as Mateo/Harry shoots Lena in his movie (a rollicking comedy much like earlier Almodóvar films), Ernesto's neurotic son (Rubén Ochandiano), under instructions from his jealous father, obsessively videotapes the production. (Mateo/Harry makes the obvious comparison to Michael Powell's Peeping Tom.)

Is Broken Embraces, then, just a box of mirrors reflecting only itself and the medium, a desperate gesture from a director who, like Harry, has lost his vision? Almodóvar redeems the movie from such empty artifice by showing a snippet from another film about heartbreak, Roberto Rossellini's Voyage to Italy, perhaps the worst date movie of all time. In this scene, a troubled couple visit the ruins of Pompeii and look at the 2000-year old lava casts of two lovers caught in an embrace by the cataclysm. It is an artifact of evanescent love, preserved for the ages, a memento mori of all that is lost, like the films of Rossellini and Almodóvar, and like cinema itself.

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