Pleasanton Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - March 12, 2010

Ready to Rent

Broken Embraces

by Joe Ramirez

Sony DVD & Blu-Ray

2 hours, 7 minutes

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Director Pedro Almodóvar's "Broken Embraces" is a summation of the great director's fascination with the movies that make him tick. He fervently conjures up widescreen comedies of the '50s, Antonioni's bleakness, and Hitchcock, lots of Hitchcock (with a nod to Louis Malle's "Elevator to the Gallows") to boil up a movie about an ill-fated movie, and the lingering effects on its creators. Now, I know that sounds like cheesy horror, or misplaced noir, whose roots "Broken Embraces" may be firmly planted, but in the hands of its director it becomes a labyrinth of controlled kinkiness and moving melodrama, something Almodóvar specializes in. It stars his pop-muse Penélope Cruz in a variety of wigs and dresses and an appropriately subdued performance by Lluís Homar as a director/screenwriter who takes refuge in the movies he loves.

To get my low-rent surliness out first, I have to comment that Almodóvar's recent movies lack the spontaneity or sense of naughty thrills his earlier movies oozed. Now, this is a man that made "Tie Me Up/Tie Me Down!" and created a minute dream sequence that uses an anatomical part as a major prop in "Talk to Her" (my favorite of all his movies). So it's disappointing to have a sneaking sense that his latest fare, especially since "Bad Education," feels weirdly spayed, as if his newfound prestige has challenged his sense of fun. He is a gifted moviemaker, with all the right moves, but this is what happened with Fellini in the later '70s, where the challenge to create something intricate for the critics, and thus feed his ego, superceded the drive to create a movie for people to connect with. "Broken Embraces" subtly suffers from the same syndrome, but its headiness outweighs its aloofness.

It is blind screenwriter Harry Caine (Homar), however, who does not create such distant fare. He is, although, a distant man, living like all good noir men in the shadow of his past. In this case, it is an affair with an actress, Lena (Cruz), which has left him not only physically robbed, but emotionally as well. In flashbacks we find that Caine is actually a pseudonym (and a nod to "The Third Man"), and that he worked as a director under the moniker Mateo Blanco whose last film -- a comedy starring Lena -- was sabotaged and butchered by its producer Ernesto Martel, who happens to be the Lena's very jealous husband. We also discover how the making of this comedy, which becomes a fascinating story-within-a-story (a-la Almodóvar's earlier movies), is the downfall of Blanco, but also an introduction into living what we suspect is his favorite genre.

"Broken Embraces" is the most carefully constructed out of all Almodóvar's movies, and for this it can combat the detachment of his most recent fare. Every scene, like in all mysteries is carefully placed and detailed. There has always been a sense of Kubrickian analness to his movies, but his flamboyancy was enough to energize the plot. Here he seems to compartmentalize this verve into the movie-within-a-movie sequences, which becomes the overall plot's significant source of life. Almodóvar expresses Caine's one true love -- the movies -- in these scenes, which acts like a coup-de-grace for the audience. "Broken Embraces" may not be Pedro Almodóvar's best movie, but it is his best constructed one that can especially be appreciated by a movie nerd like him -- or me.

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