Broken Embraces

Pedro Almodóvar’s fourth film with Penelope Cruz sees the camera lingering obsessively on the Spanish star. Frankly, we are not a muse

Broken Embraces is director Pedro Almodóvar’s loving nod to the art of film and film-making. He has said as much, and the story, a wildly labyrinthine affair about obsession, love, deception and movies, spells it out pretty clearly.

The film's timeline moves between the present day and 1994, when director Mateo Blanco is in the process of making the film of his career with beautiful ingénue Lena (Penelope Cruz), his perfect woman. The pair fall for each other and fall foul of Martel, Lena’s equally obsessive, middle-aged millionaire lover who also happens to be the film’s producer.

It would be easy to assume that Blanco, brilliantly played by Lluis Homar, is Almodóvar’s cinematic avatar, obsessing about edits, composition and structure - but most of all about Lena.

Broken Embraces is movie-making at its most opaque and yet obvious. It’s clear that the movie within the movie, Girls and Suitcases (itself Almodóvar’s meta-fictional version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) has the obsessed director’s camera, lingering over Lena’s every move and nuanced smile. So too, Broken Embraces has a seemingly obsessed director, whose camera remorselessly obsesses over Cruz.

If the film is Almodóvar’s love letter to movies and movie-making, it’s a perfume-sodden epistle of purpling prose about Cruz. In this, her fourth film with the director, she has become the consummate Almodóvar woman (not withstanding his transsexuals and transvestites). She seems to be all Almodóvar’s women rolled into one – film star, whore, saint and martyr.

Odd, then, that she’s so unloveable. A director famous for his sympathetic portrayal of female characters has rendered a cold fish to match the eye of his lens. Obsession is boring to the outsider, and obsession seems to have replaced the warm affection the director normally has for his women. A similarly Cruz-stricken Woody Allen did something similar in the over-rated Vicki Cristina Barcelona. His drooling presentation of Cruz as a beautiful vessel or the ACME of dusky Hispanic beauty did neither of them any favours.

But Broken Embraces isn't all Cruz control. Like the best Almodóvar films, it retains the uncanny ability to lace the most absurd scenarios with poignancy and empathy. There are some wonderfully silly and endearing scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in one of the director's manically camp earlier works.

For Almodóvar, as for Mateo, it seems that film is a fantasy playground that runs parallel to life. Mateo’s film is brutally edited for release by the enraged Martel, when the lovers flee both the movie set and his clutches. And even though he’s gone blind, when Mateo gets a chance to re-edit his film with Cruz (and indeed his own past), the metaphor, though laboured, is forgiven as it brings a pleasing resolution to the previous Sirk-like melodrama.

The ruminations on the power of the edit and the subtle differences between takes which can be the difference between art and artlessness, good and bad, are fascinating and even poignant when contrasted with the lives of the characters. There may be no second acts in American life, but in Broken Embraces, there’s not only a second act but an opportunity to strategically revise the first.

And yet, as interesting and colourful as it undoubtedly is, why does Broken Embraces seem unsettling and unsatisfying? Because we’re left not with a treatise on the subjectivity in art, or a commentary on film as artifice, nor even, heaven forefend, a satisfying Pedro Almodóvar movie, but a film of fictional obsessions made by a man with a seeming endless fixation on Penelope Cruz.

Joseph Nawaz

Broken Embraces runs at the Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast. Click here for full details.