, 127 min, 2009
Penélope Cruz (Lena), Lluís Homar (Mateo Blanco / Harry Caine), Blanca Portillo (Judit García), José Luis Gómez (Ernesto Martel), Rubén Ochandiano (Ray X), Tamar Novas (Diego), Ángela Molina (Madre de Lena), Chus Lampreave (Portera), Kiti Mánver (Madame Mylene), Lola Dueñas (Lectora de labios), Mariola Fuentes (Edurne), Carmen Machi (Chon), Kira Miró (Modelo), Rossy de Palma (Julieta), Alejo Sauras (Álex). Directed by Pedro Almodóvar and produced by Agustín Almodóvar and Esther García. Screenplay by Pedro Almodóvar.
Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces brings his Hitchcockian influence full-circle. From the lush, melodramatic score to the stylish cinematography and the complex plot of adultery, blackmail, voyeurism and crimes of passion. It combines all of these elements that Almodovar favors with perhaps his favorite element: Penelope Cruz.
Penelope Cruz stars as Lena, a former prostitute who becomes a secretary for Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), one of the most powerful businessmen in Madrid. Lena manages to snag a leading role in Girls and Suitcases, the very Almodovarian new film by Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar, from Bad Education), a very successful Spanish filmmaker. While working on the film, she falls madly in love with Mateo and soon, her elderly husband begins to suspect and so he has his creepy, vaguely effeminate son Ernesto Jr. (Ruben Ochandiano) follow them around with a camera under the guise of making a behind-the-scenes documentary. Ernesto Jr. does seem genuinely interested in the filmmaking process and might actually like Mateo Blanco, but ultimately he’s doing his father’s bidding. Oh, and there’s an agent named Judit (Blanca Portillo), her son Diego (Tamar Novas), a lip reader (Lola Duenas) who is hired by Ernesto Sr. to suss out what Lena and Mateo are saying to each other in the M.O.S. (mit-out-sound/without sound) footage from the “documentary,” various aliases (Mateo becomes blind eventually and goes by the name Harry Caine and Ernesto Jr. pops up as an edgy young filmmaker named Ray X), and – of course? – a fractured chronology where, a bit like Bad Education, we find ourselves jumping forward and backward in time. Got all that? Good.
Indeed, the plot of this film feels a bit to me like Almodovar on stylistic overload. Though the filmmaking itself is relatively sedate compared to some of his other late films, the plot is roughly as complex as any of his earlier works. He again even pays homage to himself by having the plot of the film-within-a-film (Girls and Suitcases) resemble strongly his first true international success, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988).
I’ve seen this twice now, and it is difficult to suss out exactly what happens off the top of ones’ head and certainly it makes more sense if you have a synopsis to consult. Ultimately, for all its complexity and stylistic bravado, however, it is really not very deep and not nearly as complex as it perhaps at first seems. This is a story of two people in love and one jealous man who desperately wants to either preserve his marriage or punish his wife for falling out of love with him. All of the other details are almost incidental and, dare I say, arbitrary?
If this is not one of the very best films Almodovar has made, at least it is in keeping with the style of some of his later work. I know there are those who prefer his earlier, comedic, absurd films, but I still find this melodramatic Cinemascope style he’s cultivated over the past decade or more to be refreshing by comparison. Now if he could only find a way to focus his energy in such a way as to give us stylistic exuberance and emotional satisfaction. He’s on the right track here, he’s just not quite in the same league as All About My Mother or Talk to Her – though at least this isn’t quite pure stylistic excess like Bad Education. Only time will tell what side of Almodovar we will see next…