Ever since taking the best foreign picture Oscar for Todo Sobre mi Madre, Pedro Almodóvar has seen anything he does loved by the majority of his fans, regardless of its actual quality. His films can belabour under ridiculous plots or drift along without even the merest hint of narrative progression, and praise will still be as unstinting as it used to be for Woody Allen before critics suddenly realised how low his output had sunk. Fortunately, Broken embraces is a definite return to the form that garnered him a reputation for being Spain’s most important director since Buñuel. It also goes some way to wiping out the memories of Penélope Cruz’s disastrous foray into Hollywood as all-purpose Latina sex interest in the early part of this decade. Cruz dominates the screen here visually, and reminds the viewer of her tremendous range as an actress as she portrays a woman caught in a loveless marriage.
Like many Almodóvar films, Broken embraces stems from obsession. There is the cineaste’s obsession with recreating or echoing shots from much loved films, the unforgiving sexual obsession of Jose Luis Gomez’s creepy fatcat Ernesto Martel for Cruz’s character, Lena, which gives rise to the tragic events in the film’s past, but also the obsession of the characters in the present to return to the past and explain the present day.
The film is at its most self-indulgent and inconsequential when it’s in the present day. The opening scene is a fairly preposterous seduction of a young, attractive woman by a blind, aging writer (played by Lluís Homar) whose main technique seems to be asking if her jeans are very tight (this made me wonder if Almodóvar is going through the same embittered aging process as Picasso, where art can always provide the fantasy escape route that flesh can no longer provide in reality). However, once the writer, the wonderfully named Harry Caine, begins to recount his past to his assistant Diego, we start to see real drama and complexity.
In the past, Harry is neither blind nor called Harry. His name is Mateo and he’s a director who casts Lena in his new film, Girls and Suitcases (a knowing pastiche of Alomodóvar’s early style). The film is financed by Martel as an indulgence to Lena, but with the concession that his son, Ernesto Junior, be allowed to film a ‘making of’ documentary. This documentary is in fact a vehicle for Martel to spy on Lena when she’s not with him. The images of him watching the rushes magnified on the walls of his study are a powerful portrayal of monomania that only increases as he realises that Lena is having an affair with Mateo.
Lena tries to leave Martel, but in what may be a reference to Spain’s hidden problems with domestic violence towards women, he pushes her down the stairs and she breaks her leg. Fearing for her life, she covers up for him, but all the time she’s desperate to get back to Mateo. The lovers do eventually escape, but tragedy is swift to arrive, and Harry’s blindness/Mateo’s change of name cease to be a mystery.
The scenes in the past are all dominated by Cruz. It’s hard to describe just how beautiful she looks in these scenes, as if Almodóvar has somehow managed to make the viewer as obsessed with her as Mateo and Martel, so the scenes when she is suffering hit home even harder. When the action finally moves from flashback to the present and the final revelations about the past (which include probably the most sanguine response to the revelation of paternity ever seen, the total obverse of Luke Skywalker casting himself into the shaft), the screen feels empty, bereft of her quality and presence until she re-emerges in a brief outtake from Girls and Suitcases.
For all that some of the final tying up of loose plot ends feels contrived and flimsy, Broken embraces is a return to form for Almodóvar. A love song to Cruz and to cinema, it is a film that delights in the pleasures of seeing at the same time as it warns us that appearances may harbour something darker beneath the surface.