Dir: Pedro Almodovar
Sony Pictures Classics
Like most of his fans, I love to love Pedro Almodóvar and his movies. However, it would be disingenuous of me not to disclose that Broken Embraces is an auteurist misstep, the kind of film that exposes its maker’s preoccupations and gives away his shortcomings. This self-conscious, reference-packed comic melodrama-noir hybrid about obsession, love, performance and cinema is also tepid, dilated and fitfully tedious and stale.
In a measure of Almodóvar’s absolute technical mastery, the action flashes back and forth between the present day and 1994, never becoming disconcerting or confusing. Harry Caine (Lluis Homar) is a blind screenwriter and former director who abandoned his real name, Mateo Blanco, after losing his sight in a car crash. News about the death of shady financier Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), triggers memories of his movie-making career in the ’90s: Martel bankrolled Mateo’s final movie (Girls and Suitcases) with the condition that his mistress, Lena (Penelope Cruz), was given the lead. Blanco’s former production manager, Judit (Blanca Portillo), who holds a torch for him, seems nervous at the news. Even more so when a pretentious, aspiring filmmaker calling himself Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano), who turns out to be Martel’s son, asks Blanco to help write a script that’s intended as an act of vengeance against his neglectful father. Harry first rejects Ray’s offer but later reconsiders.
Embraces now flashes back to 1992, when Martel falls for his secretary-wannabe actress-part-time call girl (Lena). By 1994, the ancient Martel and Lena are an item. However, when she auditions for Girls and Suitcases, Blanco also falls for her and they begin an affair. Upset, the obsessively jealous Martel gets his son (also Ochandiano, here as a pimpled and wildly gauche, camp teenager) to spy on Blanco and Lena under the guise of making a behind-the-scenes documentary about the shoot. Curiously, Almodóvar drops the subplot almost entirely, relegating Ray to these flashbacks, where he leers and hovers rather ridiculously on the set. It’s the film’s first warning sign that Almodóvar may be more interested in concept than character. In unmistakably Almodóvar fashion, watching Martel’s life fall apart, as a lip reader (Lola Dueñas) decodes Lena and Blanco’s conversations in the boy’s video footage, is hilarious. But any compassion for Martel evaporates in the laughter–one of several moments when the film deliberately undermines a particular mood. Following a disastrous trip to Ibiza, Martel and Lena break up, and Martel initiates a slow, costly revenge designed to destroy Blanco. Hereon, much of the action takes place amid the volcanic landscapes of Lanzarote, opening things visually even as the drama becomes more and more claustrophobic.
The script moves fluidly back and forth in time but the film trips over its ambitions; there’s too much plot and Almodóvar ends up back loading it with exposition-heavy scenes that toil to resolve its convolutions with some coherence. Though the complexity of his plotting can be exciting, Almodóvar’s propensity to have his characters explain his movies’ twists and turns, often in drawn out monologue, has a deadening and deflating dramatic effect. The premise is too convoluted and because Almodóvar seems hell-bent on cramming as many elements as possible into his story, his characters lack dimension.
As this bloodless love triangle unfolds, Almodóvar drops a few ham-fisted references to Roberto Rosselini’s Voyage to Italy, which Mateo and Lena watch together on television and from which Embraces lifts its title, the Douglas Sirk melodrama Magnificent Obsession, which Diego almost plays for Harry on DVD and the dangerous staircases of Henry Hathaway’s ’40s noir Kiss of Death. And the film within a film Girls and Suitcases is a clear homage to the director’s own 1988 comedy, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. This self-awareness lacks substance and weight; Almodóvar’s references play more as clever allusion than as meaningful intertextuality, making Embraces feel superficial and hollow, a simulacrum of a film about love, loss, and redemption. After the film is over, its images and characters may well disappear, leaving little or no residue in your memory.
Embrace’s shortcomings are terribly disappointing and frustrating since Almodóvar is a stylistic law unto himself and his artistry has grown increasingly controlled and disciplined. Embraces may be the work of a consummate artist, but unlike his masterpieces (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Talk to Her) which are made of flesh and blood, Embraces is only made of celluloid, lacking urgency, energy, and most disappointingly, soul.