Oeuvre is an in-depth examination of the entire body of work of an important director.
Pedro Almodóvar’s features have always been self-referential, commenting both on themselves and the benchmark influences their director continually trots out. Volver took this process one step further, resurrecting a character’s stolen manuscript from 1995’s The Flower of My Secret and turning it into its own film. Broken Embraces makes a similar, if slightly more daring, move, re-imagining the director’s own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown as a troubled film within a film, itself featuring several of the same actors from the original.
Combined with a long parade of overt references – to Peeping Tom, Orson Welles and many others – Almodóvar’s baroque, Hitchcock-style yarn can certainly be accused of laying it on a little thick. At the same time, it’s hard to fault a film that’s so giddily effusive about all of its passions. Colors, movies, women, mysteries – all are presented underlined and in bold, a spectacular display that disarms accusations of hollowness through its obsessive fixation with all manners of surfaces.
Broken Embraces is also a pretty good story, and seems especially spry after Volver, which felt leaden and perfunctory by comparison. Almodóvar follows up that film, which indulged in a more restrained exploration of beauty (its shots of food specifically come to mind) with a full-on immersion. Everything here, from gaudy gun murals to the rich palette of reds and yellows, feels unabashedly vibrant. Along with the film references, this lack of restraint seems to present constant reminder of the good things in life, a presence that stands in stark contrast to a story about characters being robbed of them.
It’s worth noting in this sense how so many of these characters end up deprived of the thing they desire. Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar), the director at the core of the film, loses both his sight and Lena (Penélope Cruz), the woman he loves, herself already cheated of her incipient career by an ex-lover’s scheming. That ex-lover, the wealthy Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) seems equally tortured by the loss of his trophy girlfriend, while Mateo’s agent Judit (Blanca Portillo) nurses a similar grudge.
There are times when the brashness of the cinematography seems at odds with the bleakness of the narrative, but this conflict serves to amplify Almodóvar’s message about the ephemeral nature of beautiful things. Like many of his best films, it communicates a bittersweet message that’s all the more aching for how gorgeously it’s delivered. This message is enough to distract from the unpeeling onion of the narrative subtext, which is complex but by now feels repetitive, the kind of winking trickery he’s been fooling around with for a little too long.
There are other missteps, notably the circuitous structure of the narrative, which takes too many long dips into flashback and often feels like it’s about to collapse. But closing off a decade that has seen some of the director’s best work, Broken Embraces feels like nether a misstep or a failure. And it’s hard not to love a film that manages to work in one of the weirdest stock character of Spanish soap opera, the faux-freckled, red-haired child played by an adult. That role is filled here by the character later known as Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano), another tragic character who’s also consistently, unintentionally hilarious. It says something about a director when he can make you laugh at a character while also feeling for them, and his most recent effort certainly excels in these kind of tricky maneuvers.
by Jesse Cataldo
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