Saturday, January 2, 2010

Broken Embraces ****

Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Penélope Cruz, Lluís Homar, Blanca Portillo
José Luis Gómez, Rubén Ochandiano, Tamar Novas, Ángela Molina
Lola Dueñas, Chus Lampreave, Rossy de Palma, Kiti Manver

Life may not offer any extra footage but the redeeming, regenerative power of movies has the effect of rebirth in Pedro Almodóvar's "Broken Embraces".
A cunning examination of the auteur's role as both God and devil, the plot centers on Harry Caine (Homar) a blind screenwriter who reminisces about his past.
He remembers how fourteen years before, he wasn't only able to see, but was a thriving film director called Mateo Blanco. During the filming of his first comedy he fell in love with his leading lady Lena (Cruz), mistress of Ernesto Martel (Gómez) a powerful businessman turned movie producer.
When their affair ends, Mateo takes the name of Harry and is left putting back together the pieces of what went wrong. This doesn't only include their doomed relationship, but the reconstruction of the movie he let slip away from his fingers.
With his usual mix of melodrama, dark comedy and referential winks, Almodóvar comes up with one of his mot labyrinthine creations yet, in which revenge tales get tangled among studio productions, Oedipal vendettas and Hitchcockian voyeurism.
Because "Broken Embraces" above everything is a movie about watching. Mateo watches through his camera, Harry watches with his other senses, Almodóvar watches through his own lens and then there's also us as an audience.
When a character named Ray-X (Ochandiano) appears asking Harry to write a screenplay with him, he also brings a camera.
What interests Pedro here is pulling off the hat trick Michelangelo Antonioni did in "Blow Up" by coming to terms with the tragic fact that no single person in the world will be able to see it all.
This is brought up in a scene of haunting beauty where Mateo takes a picture at the beach, only to discover a couple in an embrace when he develops the film. The couple wasn't there before, but it was.
This acknowledgment of our limitation as humans offers Almodóvar another chance to try and be God by establishing that a film-considering you keep the raw material-can be done and undone in a million different ways, each time creating something completely new and magical.
While a life has no director's cut.
In her fourth collaboration with Almodóvar, Cruz gives perhaps her most complex performance to date. Lena starts as a secretary with a "Belle de Jour" past who gives in to Martel because he helps her out economically.
We can't however bring ourselves to question her morally and in several scenes Lena goes through self flagellation that reaches heartbreaking proportions.
She's "too beautiful to be funny" says Mateo's assistant Judit (Portillo) about Lena, but she proves her wrong by turning in a delightful performance in "Girls and Suitcases" (the movie within a movie that also turns out to be "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown").
The director gives Cruz an Audrey Hepburn look (there's a ponytail straight out of "Funny Face") but her performance is shaped around Ingrid Bergman.
From her prostitution-out-of-duty in movies like "Notorious" and to a degree "Casablanca", to her heartbreaking turn in "Voyage to Italy" (a scene of which is featured in the moment where the film's title is borrowed from) to even aspects of Bergman's personal life (falling in love with her renowned director while being in a relationship).
Like a Bergman performance, Cruz inhabits Lena quietly. Her introduction happens in the most inconsequential of ways to show us how Cruz's beauty is the rare kind that can also go unseen. Her way of giving herself to Mateo fills the screen with the kind of passion classic stars could suggest with a glance.
Homar's double turn reminds us of the wonderful characters in film noir. His job is also to evoke Pedro himself and in one scene as he listens to a woman describe herself, his face lights up with the kind of joy we imagine Almodóvar directs every scene with. Gómez gives a menacing performance and Portillo's portrait of bitterness and oxymoronic loving resentment might just be the most layered character in the movie.
There's also a lot of duality in "Broken Embraces" as every character must play a part; they're all involved in a game of hide and seek with each other and themselves. this could bring us to the conclusion that Almodóvar might not be in tune with his characters' needs.
Almost everything in the film reaches redundant proportions as Pedro shows us everything., he tells us everyone's secrets, specifically shoots elements that might otherwise seem irrelevant and even recurs to the sin of matching images with narration. Or so he makes us think.
It's only after the movie has ended that we begin to understand that his plan was to take us into Harry Caine territory all along. Like Harry we remain blind throughout the movie and need to be shown and told everything, up to the most infinite detail.
And like Harry there's more than meets the figurative eye as we leave the movie thinking we know everything. When "Broken Embraces" finishes-on a perfect note-we see a contented Harry confident that he has reached catharsis.
It won't be a mystery if your mind instantly goes back to a scene in the movie where we see a character trying to put together a torn picture on a table. As the camera zooms out we see that it's merely one out of what might be hundreds of photos. When we leave "Broken Embraces" we have just begun to solve the mystery.


Michael Parsons said...

We agree! Hurrah!

Luke said...

Wow, I can't wait to see this one (even moreso since reading this) ! Pedro is genius.