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Broken Embraces

Penelope Cruz in Broken Embraces.

Love, Lunacy, and the Movies: Broken Embraces

In his 1978 book, The Films in My Life, Francois Truffaut wrote, “I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema, or the agony…” Mateo Blanco, aka Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), Pedro Almodóvar’s screenwriter protagonist in Broken Embraces, feels both in the course of this film, in spades. Almodóvar operates in a much different self-created cinematic milieu than Truffaut did, but Broken Embraces strikingly expresses his obsessive love of filmmaking. In his way, he’s even more of an auteur than Truffaut. (How’s that for irony?)

Almodóvar’s Mateo isn’t really a stand-in for his creator, but the filmmaker has endowed and burdened him with some of Almodóvar’s own artistic motives. This continuity is heightened by making a movie Mateo once directed look, in the glimpses we get of it, something like Almodóvar’s own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Broken Embraces itself is a wildly convoluted, self-transmuting, tangent plotting maze. Shall we gird our loins and try to recap?

Mateo/Harry is a middle-aged, blind screenwriter in Madrid who was once a sighted director. Fourteen years ago, he was directing Lena (Penelope Cruz) in a movie called Girls and Suitcases, bankrolled by a ruthless financier, Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), who was jealously in love with Lena. She was once his secretary, then his mistress, and then his star. And she was also Mateo’s lover. Judit (Blanca Portillo), Mateo’s agent, was the production manager for Girls, and her 19-year-old son, Diego (Tamar Novas) is now Mateo’s assistant. Early on, Martel’s obituary appears in the newspapers. And soon after, a strange guy who calls himself Roy X shows up to pitch a movie about a gay son’s revenge against a coldly homophobic, captain-of-finance father. He bears some resemblance, it transpires, to Martel’s son, who had hung around Mateo’s film set years ago, videotaping the film’s production, and more. Cruz appears only in the flashbacks, which compose about half the film, and contain the clues to the meanings of the character’s contemporary situations.

Broken Embraces has the feel of a madcap melodrama; it’s a kind of dark, lurid romp. This harkens back to Almodóvar’s earlier films, including Woman and technically, his control seems undiminished.

But things have changed for us and him. When the director was still starting out, he once said, “My rebellion is to deny Franco…I start everything I write with the idea ‘What if Franco had never existed?’” Well, Franco is long gone and dead, as Saturday Night Live used to point out. Spain is now part of the same international corporatized world that the United States has been dominating, and it’s gotten harder to flout the bourgeois regime. Capitalists have been trying to industrialize the desire Almodóvar’s movies used to flaunt and celebrate. Post-modernism hasn’t entirely robbed him of material but it’s cramped his creative latitude at least a little. He can’t take as much for granted.

For all its complexity, what this film is really about is what Pauline Kael used to call “movie love.” Broken Embraces has obvious references and allusions to Michael Powell, Roberto Rossellini, Michaelangelo Antonioni, and perhaps more that I missed. But it’s real subject is the need to make movies, to select from and put in a frame life’s messes. This doesn’t result in the kind of giddy, dangerous appeal Almodóvar’s work used to have, and maybe it can’t.

Part of the real poignance of the film can be found in Mateo’s remark near the end: “Films have to be finished even if you do it blindly.”

Watch the trailer for Broken Embraces

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