Cannes 2009 'Broken Embraces': review

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Penelope Cruz stars in 'Broken Embraces', the latest film from Spanish maestro, Pedro Almodóvar.

Pedro Almodóvar’s seventeenth film, which premieres in Cannes today, is his longest, most complicated and self-reflexive film to date. Rather than continuing the warm tone of ‘Volver’, ‘Los Abrazos Rotos’ (‘Broken Embraces’) goes back to the noir of 2004’s ‘Bad Education’, but takes the film fixation up a whole new level. Jumbling genres and fragmenting characters – in particular, Penélope Cruz’s Lena who has more identities than Jason Bourne, from an Audrey Hepburn-esque film star, to a femme fatale and a ‘Belle de Jour’-style call-girl – Almodóvar seems to be trying to cram everything he loves about the movies into ‘Broken Embraces’.

It starts in present-day Madrid. Mateo Blanco (‘Bad Education’s’ Lluís Homar) is a filmmaker who’s been blind ever since a car accident on the island of Lanzarote that also claimed the life of his lover Lena. Since the tragedy, he’s been known only by his pen name Harry Caine, repressing his former self in order to live life to the full, looked after by his age-old friend Judit (‘Volver’s’ Blanca Portillo) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas, ‘The Sea Inside’).

All of this is cut through with flashbacks to Lena’s story, which begins in 1992 when she’s hoodwinked into marrying her wealthy stockbroker boss, Ernesto Martel – brilliantly played by Almodóvar newcomer José Luis Gómez, who keeps ruthlessness, benevolence and vulnerability expertly intermingling throughout – before meeting Mateo when she auditions for a part in his latest film.

But these are just the bare bones of an ambitiously labyrinthine plot. There’s also the mysterious Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano), who wants Harry to help him write a script to avenge his bullying father. There’s ‘Chicas y Maletas’ (‘Girls and Suitcases’), the film-within-a-film directed by Mateo, starring Lena and produced by Ernesto, which bears a striking similiarity to Almodóvar’s ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’, right down to the barbiturate-laced gazpacho scene. Then there’s the ‘Chicas y Maletas’ making-of; a staircase fall; a pile of torn-up photos; suppressed secrets; scripts about cosmetic-inventing vampires; Arthur Miller’s Down’s syndrome son; and cameos by a host of Almodóvar regulars.

It’s a tribute to Almodóvar’s careful scripting and the skills of Cruz and the rest of the cast that this intricate fusion of disparate elements hangs together as well as it does. It’s easy to forgive its improbabilities and misfires and just succumb to its artful flow of constantly resonating moments, which sends the brain ping-ponging in all directions.

But despite all the passion and tragedy, it doesn’t resonate like a ‘Talk to Her’ or a ‘Volver’. The title, for instance, connects to a cluster of dovetailing images and ideas – a ripped-up photo of Lena and Mateo, a scene from Rossellini’s ‘Voyage to Italy’, a couple embracing on the black volcanic sands of Lanzarote, Lena’s tragic fate – but they never coalesce.

It’s certainly Almodóvar’s most inward-looking film, and its roots, he’s said, lie in the migraines that have started to afflict him in recent years. It was while recovering from one in a darkened room that he conjured the character of a blind filmmaker. It sounds like a director imagining his worse nightmare, and as such, you might be forgiven for thinking ‘Broken Embraces’ is the product of a man isolated by fame and ill health taking refuge in his artistic past.

But for all its darkness and tragedy, it’s an optimistic film at heart: despite his afflictions Mateo/Harry continues his work and embraces life. One of the most moving scenes shows him answering to his Harry Caine identity for the first time on a beach surrounded by kites, surfers, children, lovers, dogs, life. There’s plenty of comedy here too, not least from Lola Dueñas’s (‘Volver’) lip-reader, who, hired when the making-of’s sound fails, reproduces Lena’s speech in monotone for Ernesto.

The sense is of an ageing director taking stock: exploring his cinematic roots, imagining his future and working through it all to emerge counting his blessings at the end. It’s something reflected in the way those trademark Almodóvar bright colours come leaping out from the shadowy backgrounds in Rodrigo Prieto’s exquisite cinematography. ‘Broken Embraces’ is indeed a film where joy comes lurching out of the darkness to steel you, lift you, to make you realise that no matter how bad things get, there’s always something to enjoy. There’s always cinema.

Author: Nick Funnell



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