There’s often something charmingly eccentric about the English titles of Pedro Almodóvar’s films, as if Spain’s greatest living director spent just a few minutes pondering their translation with the aid of an online Spanish-English dictionary. ‘Live Flesh’? What exactly is that? ‘Bad Education’? The Spanish means ‘Bad Manners’ or ‘Ill Bred’. And now ‘Broken Embraces’. I’m not sure what they are either, although having seen Almodóvar’s seventeenth film twice, what’s clear is that the name reflects the feeling of watching it: it pulls you in and repels you, pulls you in and repels you. After over two hours of flirtation and rejection (this is Almodóvar’s longest film), it finally resolves itself into a beautiful love letter to cinema and its glorious potential, but not without exploring the darker side of the medium and how a film can so easily slip through its maker’s fingers.
While some of Almodóvar’s films are out-and-out heartbreakers – perfect storms of melodrama, storytelling and extreme living – this is a more cerebral, self-reflective and noir-ish affair. It’s part of his brilliance to tell wild stories without you even batting an eyelid. But here you can’t help notice the film’s complexity, not least because this tragic romantic thriller is mostly about films and filmmaking: Almodóvar is intent on piling image upon image so that there are several films within a film, including an amusing pastiche of the director’s own ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’, here renamed ‘Girls and Suitcases’.
We start in the present: Harry Caine (Lluís Homar) is a blind scriptwriter who doesn’t let his disability disarm him: we encounter him having fun on his sofa with a woman who helped him to cross the road. But his past rears its head when a young man comes knocking and we flash back to 1992 to meet Lena (Penélope Cruz), a young secretary driven to desperate measures to help her ill father. Two years later, Lena is living with her violent, older millionaire boss Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) and starring in a film funded by Martel and directed by Caine – not yet blind and using his real name, Mateo Blanco.
To explain more is unnecessary, but Almodóvar explores themes of spying and control, each of which he reflects through cinema itself: Martel follows his wife via snatched video recordings; Blanco fights for the ownership of his work as much as he struggles to keep a grip on his life; and Lena seeks personal and professional escape through acting.
Cruz is as enchanting as ever and channels images of actresses from Monroe to Audrey Hepburn through her various masks of hair, clothes and make-up. The photography may be more restrained in colour than anything Almodóvar has produced but this suits the film’s stately, reflective air. Be warned though: you have to be prepared to think more than you feel, and to think more about cinema even than life itself. But what brilliant thoughts…
Click here to read an interview with Cruz