By Chris Wisniewski
Dir. Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, Sony Pictures Classics
If he weren’t so damn likable and talented, it would be tempting to begrudge Pedro Almodóvar his success. Almodóvar—always a gifted visual stylist—turned an artistic corner a decade ago with All About My Mother and its follow-up, Talk to Her. To the eye-popping color, self-conscious deconstruction of genre, and playful performativity that had characterized his earlier work, those films added an emotional maturity and clarity that his previous movies only hinted at. They were serious, and they were seriously fun to watch. Since then, Almodóvar has honed a brand of cinema that weds respectability and commercial viability so seamlessly that Cannes invites and U.S. distribution now come pro forma. That bankable Almodóvar brand, coupled with his larger-than-life personality, has made him one of the few breakout directorial stars of contemporary international cinema. People and critics love to love him and his movies. As a result, he’s difficult to criticize.
All of this is really a polite way of saying that lately, Almodóvar has gotten a free pass from critics, who received his last two movies, Bad Education and Volver, with (too much) enthusiasm. They’re both sensuous, smartly conceived films, but they also trip over their own ambitions. There’s an awful lot of plot in each—so much so that Almodóvar ends up backloading them with exposition-heavy scenes that strain to resolve their convolutions with some measure of coherence ("I knew she was your sister and your daughter, and p.s. I killed your father and his mistress, and I’m not really a ghost. So let’s just be a big dysfunctional family of women who murdered their spouses!"). Though the intricacy of his plotting can be thrilling, Almodóvar’s tendency to have his characters explain his movies’ twists and turns, often in protracted monologue, has a deadening and deflating dramatic effect. In Volver and Bad Education, he loses his momentum just when he should be reaching a climax, and by their third acts, both end up feeling mostly like meta-cinematic exercises—heavy on style, light on heart.
Almodóvar’s new film, Broken Embraces, is more of the same, and less. It’s unmistakably Almodóvar—a self-aware, reference-packed melodrama-noir hybrid and a meditation on obsession, love, performance, and cinema—but it’s also tepid, bloated, and fitfully dull. Broken Embraces is an auteurist stumble, the sort of film that reveals its maker’s preoccupations a little too obviously and exposes his shortcomings a little too clearly. It would be disingenuous grandstanding of me to label the movie an out-and-out disaster (too much intelligence and craft went into it), but it continues a downward trend in Almodóvar’s output that is all the more dispiriting after the creative zenith of All About My Mother.
As Broken Embraces opens, Harry Caine, né Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), a blind screenwriter and former filmmaker, learns of the death of stockbroker (and former rival) Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). Harry’s soon visited by aspiring filmmaker Ray X, né Ernesto Jr. (Ruben Ochandiano), who wants Harry to help him on an autobiographical screenplay about a homophobic father (twice married, with two kids) who rejects his gay son (twice married, with two kids). For Ray, the film serves as emotional revenge on his dead father; for Almodóvar, it’s an elaborate conceit that quickly introduces many of Broken Embraces’ central motifs: repetition, doubling, the relationships between fathers and sons, the mutability of identity, and the transposition of a filmmaker’s real-world emotional conflicts onto his cinema. Harry first rejects Ray’s offer but later reconsiders. Curiously, Almodóvar drops the subplot almost entirely, relegating Ray mostly to the film’s flashbacks, where he leers and hovers rather ridiculously on the set of one of Mateo’s films. It’s the film’s first warning sign that Almodóvar may be more interested in concept than character.
Still, there’s plenty of promise in the movie’s opening scenes, particularly in the way Almodóvar establishes the warm relationship between Harry and Diego (Tamar Novas), the son of Harry’s former production manager, Judit (Blanca Portillo). Diego assists Harry during the day and dj’s at night. After Diego suffers an accidental overdose at a club, Harry nurses him back to health, and Diego asks Harry to tell him about his life as Mateo Blanco. Harry’s recollections launch a series of flashbacks that take the film well over a decade into the past. In 1992, Almodóvar introduces Lena (a stunning but underutilized Penelope Cruz), a former call-girl (natch) and aspiring actress (natch) who strikes up a relationship with her boss Ernesto Sr. in order to secure medical care for her father. (This isn’t the first time Almodóvar’s toyed with the symbolic connections between femininity, prostitution, and performance—but nothing here has the elegance or resonance of Antonia San Juan’s wondrous climactic scene in All About My Mother). Almodóvar jumps ahead two years to 1994, where most of the film takes place. Here, Lena auditions for Mateo’s new movie, Girls and Suitcases (which is, as it turns out, literally reshot scenes from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). Mateo casts her, and the two begin an affair, setting up an ill-fated love triangle that portends more intrigue than Broken Embraces delivers. Sure, Ernesto gets his creepy son to spy on the couple on-set, and he gives Lena a half-hearted push down some stairs, but there’s no real emotional reckoning. Jealousy plays no part in the accident that costs Mateo his sight (and Lena something more dear); it’s just an accident. Indeed, the only serious consequence of Ernesto’s obsessive desire is an attempt to wrestle final cut on Girls and Suitcases out of Mateo’s hands—evidence of Almodóvar’s artistic self-regard.
As this bloodless love triangle unfolds, Almodóvar drops a few ham-fisted references, ostensibly as sign-posts, to Rosselini’s Voyage to Italy, which Mateo and Lena watch together on television and from which Broken Embraces lifts its title, and the Sirk melodrama Magnificent Obsession, which Diego almost plays for Harry on DVD. (Women on the Verge is the film’s third major ur-text, but while the film-within-a-film scene re-creations strike a welcome, vibrant contrast to the drab palette of Broken Embraces, they ultimately play as little more than self-mythologization.) The Rosselini and Sirk would seem to have nothing in common, but they resonate with each other: their emotionally vacant, selfish, overprivileged protagonists (Jane Wyman’s Helen Phillips notwithstanding) achieve (literally) miraculous spiritual regeneration through romantic love. Problem is—I’m not sure what that has to do with Broken Embraces. Lena doesn’t show up, á la Rock Hudson, to restore Harry’s sight; nor do she and Mateo get a last-minute reprieve from their physical and metaphoric separation, as do Ingrid Bergman’s Katherine and George Sanders’s Alex. Of course that’s too literal. But in All About My Mother, Almodóvar’s references to Opening Night and All About Eve expounded upon and deepened that film’s themes. The same can’t be said of Broken Embraces and its cinematic quotations. Harry’s resurrection is artistic, not spiritual (he may be dead inside, but at least he gets another chance to give the world Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown!), and so, Almodóvar’s references play more as clever allusion than as meaningful intertextuality, making Broken Embraces feel superficial and hollow, a simulacrum of a film about love, loss, and redemption.
Because of Almodóvar’s "meta" preoccupations with Broken Embraces’ position vis a vis film genre and within film history and his own oeuvre, he makes the critical mistake of setting the emotional stakes of its laboriously complex narrative too low. Like its most recent predecessors, Broken Embraces ends with a flurry of revelations, here confessions about unrequited loves and ambiguous paternities made over casual drinks and a comically relaxed breakfast. These moments should turn the film’s world upside down; instead, the characters barely feign surprise—upon learning the true identity of his father, one of the movie’s central players hardly manages a "Really?" between offering his mother some toast and passing along a phone message. If he doesn’t care, why should we? Yet Almodóvar can’t resist the impulse to tie up all the movie’s lose ends with tedious expository monologues, even if that impulse takes him past the two hour mark.
These shortcomings are all the more frustrating because Almodóvar's artistry has grown increasingly controlled and disciplined. Though Broken Embraces may lack the visual flourish of a Women on the Verge, each shot feels delicately and deliberately composed. Almodóvar expertly uses pictures and frames (doors, windows, television sets, etc.) throughout, never more brilliantly than in an overhead shot of torn pictures of Lena that become a collage of Cruz’s hauntingly lovely face. This one shot seems to distill the entirety of Broken Embraces— images of a woman, obsessively collected and arranged by a man who cannot even see her but still feels the need to possess her. In this moment, Broken Embraces feels like it could almost be a companion piece to Talk to Her. Unlike Talk to Her, though, there is no emotional center, no invitation to identify or to challenge to that identification, no meaningful sympathy for the film’s obsessive male protagonists, and no flesh-and-blood rejoinder to their fetishization. Broken Embraces may be the work of a consummate artist, but it has no vitality, no urgency, and, perhaps most discouragingly, no soul.