Not-So-Magnificent Obsession
By Chris Wisniewski

Broken Embraces
Dir. Pedro Almod贸var, Spain, Sony Pictures Classics

If he weren鈥檛 so damn likable and talented, it would be tempting to begrudge Pedro Almod贸var his success. Almod贸var鈥攁lways a gifted visual stylist鈥攖urned 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, Almod贸var 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 Almod贸var 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鈥檚 difficult to criticize.

All of this is really a polite way of saying that lately, Almod贸var has gotten a free pass from critics, who received his last two movies, Bad Education and Volver, with (too much) enthusiasm. They鈥檙e both sensuous, smartly conceived films, but they also trip over their own ambitions. There鈥檚 an awful lot of plot in each鈥攕o much so that Almod贸var 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鈥檓 not really a ghost. So let鈥檚 just be a big dysfunctional family of women who murdered their spouses!"). Though the intricacy of his plotting can be thrilling, Almod贸var鈥檚 tendency to have his characters explain his movies鈥 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鈥攈eavy on style, light on heart.

Almod贸var鈥檚 new film, Broken Embraces, is more of the same, and less. It鈥檚 unmistakably Almod贸var鈥攁 self-aware, reference-packed melodrama-noir hybrid and a meditation on obsession, love, performance, and cinema鈥攂ut it鈥檚 also tepid, bloated, and fitfully dull. Broken Embraces is an auteurist stumble, the sort of film that reveals its maker鈥檚 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 Almod贸var鈥檚 output that is all the more dispiriting after the creative zenith of All About My Mother.

As Broken Embraces opens, Harry Caine, n茅 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鈥檚 soon visited by aspiring filmmaker Ray X, n茅 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 Almod贸var, it鈥檚 an elaborate conceit that quickly introduces many of Broken Embraces鈥 central motifs: repetition, doubling, the relationships between fathers and sons, the mutability of identity, and the transposition of a filmmaker鈥檚 real-world emotional conflicts onto his cinema. Harry first rejects Ray鈥檚 offer but later reconsiders. Curiously, Almod贸var drops the subplot almost entirely, relegating Ray mostly to the film鈥檚 flashbacks, where he leers and hovers rather ridiculously on the set of one of Mateo鈥檚 films. It鈥檚 the film鈥檚 first warning sign that Almod贸var may be more interested in concept than character.

Still, there鈥檚 plenty of promise in the movie鈥檚 opening scenes, particularly in the way Almod贸var establishes the warm relationship between Harry and Diego (Tamar Novas), the son of Harry鈥檚 former production manager, Judit (Blanca Portillo). Diego assists Harry during the day and dj鈥檚 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鈥檚 recollections launch a series of flashbacks that take the film well over a decade into the past. In 1992, Almod贸var 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鈥檛 the first time Almod贸var鈥檚 toyed with the symbolic connections between femininity, prostitution, and performance鈥攂ut nothing here has the elegance or resonance of Antonia San Juan鈥檚 wondrous climactic scene in All About My Mother). Almod贸var jumps ahead two years to 1994, where most of the film takes place. Here, Lena auditions for Mateo鈥檚 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鈥檚 no real emotional reckoning. Jealousy plays no part in the accident that costs Mateo his sight (and Lena something more dear); it鈥檚 just an accident. Indeed, the only serious consequence of Ernesto鈥檚 obsessive desire is an attempt to wrestle final cut on Girls and Suitcases out of Mateo鈥檚 hands鈥攅vidence of Almod贸var鈥檚 artistic self-regard.

As this bloodless love triangle unfolds, Almod贸var drops a few ham-fisted references, ostensibly as sign-posts, to Rosselini鈥檚 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鈥檚 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鈥檚 Helen Phillips notwithstanding) achieve (literally) miraculous spiritual regeneration through romantic love. Problem is鈥擨鈥檓 not sure what that has to do with Broken Embraces. Lena doesn鈥檛 show up, 谩 la Rock Hudson, to restore Harry鈥檚 sight; nor do she and Mateo get a last-minute reprieve from their physical and metaphoric separation, as do Ingrid Bergman鈥檚 Katherine and George Sanders鈥檚 Alex. Of course that鈥檚 too literal. But in All About My Mother, Almod贸var鈥檚 references to Opening Night and All About Eve expounded upon and deepened that film鈥檚 themes. The same can鈥檛 be said of Broken Embraces and its cinematic quotations. Harry鈥檚 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, Almod贸var鈥檚 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 Almod贸var鈥檚 "meta" preoccupations with Broken Embraces鈥 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鈥檚 world upside down; instead, the characters barely feign surprise鈥攗pon learning the true identity of his father, one of the movie鈥檚 central players hardly manages a "Really?" between offering his mother some toast and passing along a phone message. If he doesn鈥檛 care, why should we? Yet Almod贸var can鈥檛 resist the impulse to tie up all the movie鈥檚 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 Almod贸var'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. Almod贸var 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鈥檚 hauntingly lovely face. This one shot seems to distill the entirety of Broken Embraces鈥 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鈥檚 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.