In the Cut
The latest Almodóvar melodrama locates cinema's pensive pleasures entirely in the editing room
The biggest complaint leveled against the ongoing mature period of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar is that he has too comfortably settled into crafting sudsy women's melodramas. For the most part that's true: The transgressive glee of 1980s movies such as Matador and Law of Desire is absent from Talk to Her and Volver, but what recent Almodóvar lacks in superficial juiciness is made up for with a growing mastery of craft. It's a craft entirely indebted to classic Hollywood movies, Spanish soap operas, and the marquee European names of "foreign film," but it's also the sort of durable competence increasingly in short supply in theaters. So while Broken Embraces continues this Almodóvar-in-a-minor-key trajectory, it's an entertaining and sumptuous feast of a traditional cinematic experience.
It's also one of Almodóvar's most blatant mash notes to movies in general. Embraces doesn't merely focus on a director turned screenwriter, it's a movie riddled with movie allusions and quotations--to Belle de Jour, Peeping Tom, Almodóvar's own works, and others--and is explicitly about moving images' power to reveal or conceal the truth. It's a movie wherein a movie's release is used as a jealous lover's public fit, where looking through the viewfinder is both invasive and intimate. It's a movie that all-in bets on the power of cinema's imagination, in its own way as drunk an act of cinephilia as Inglourious Basterds.
"Focus" is a cruel word choice above, as the central director-turned-screenwriter is blind. In an opening voiceover Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar) confesses that he became his own creation, the blind screenwriter Harry Caine (note the obvious film-nerding here, a mashup of Orson Welles' Charles Foster Kane/Harry Lime and pulp hitter James M. Cain). Harry lives in Madrid in a cozy flat, where he works on scripts for hire secured for him by his agent Judit (Blanca Portillo), and which he works on with her son Diego (Tamar Noves). How he lost his sight is both Embraces' text and subtext, and it's told in a cross-cutting narrative that flashes from 2008 to 1994, somewhat sparked by a visit from Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano), who wants to hire Harry to write a script about a son's revenge on his father.
Back in 1994, Harry was still the sighted Mateo, a director working on his first comedy, Girls With Suitcases (scenes of which recall Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, right down the blink-and-you-miss it cameo from the indelible Rossy de Palma). Lena (Penélope Cruz) is a former escort (working-girl name: Séverine) turned administrative assistant to successful Spanish businessman Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez); she becomes Martel's mistress when he helps her ailing father gain access to private medical care. Lena had always wanted to be an actress, though, and auditions for Mateo's movie. She gets the role thanks to a spark of attraction between her and Mateo; that Martel will also pony up production money doesn't hurt, either. The rub is that Martel's dweeby, hasn't-entirely-come-out-of-the-closet son Ernesto Jr. is around set all the time with his video camera, shooting a making-of documentary.
It's a soapy setup for a love triangle, a noir-ish blast out of the past, and a labyrinth of passion--all things Almodóvar has explored before. So while it doesn't offer any surprises, it does deliver dependable pleasures. Cruz, as typical for the female lead in an Almodóvar movie, gets to be about 10 different women at once here, as Lena becomes a malleable object to both Mateo and Martel: she's Audrey Hepburn in a ponytail and sparkling smile during a screen test one moment, the rich man's arm trophy in a fresh blood-red skirt suit the next. She gets to be more than mere eye candy though, as Lena is required to be a bad actress during some Suitcases takes, a great actress when dealing with Mateo and Martel, and a human being when dealing with her father and her own choices.
Most memorable, though, are a few moments of striking pictorial poignancy. Almodóvar is a reliable draftsman of memorable images, but a number in Embraces resonate with lingering sadness. The movie itself opens peering through a video camera's viewfinder at a woman in standard head shot, with crew members fussing around her. She's soon replaced by Cruz, and only in hindsight does this sequence accrue its wordless wistfulness. Other images also cling to the memory: a blind man's hands searching for a tactile sensation on a digital image; that same man, newly sightless, regarding a beach he can't see. The most memorable, though, is also the one that single-handedly conveys Broken Embraces enterprise. A bag of ripped up photographs, from a time and place too difficult to endure, gets laid out on a table in an effort to reassemble them. Only in movies, though, can these shards of visual memories be put back together.