Pedro Almodóvar discusses 'Broken Embraces'
The veteran Spanish director releases his seventeenth movie at the end of August. He tells Dave Calhoun why you really should see it twice
‘I do find that my stories are becoming increasingly dark, increasingly sombre,’ he agrees during a visit to London soon after the film’s premiere at Cannes in May. A small, stocky man, he’s wearing new trainers, stylish jeans and a zip-up bright green tracksuit top. It’s the sort of outfit that would look ridiculous on most 59 year olds but which perfectly suits this flamboyant, energetic artist whose ascendant shock of hair, once jet black, now almost entirely white, hints at his younger days as a gay filmmaker on the punk scene in post-Franco Madrid.
‘Broken Embraces’ is the story of blind Spanish filmmaker Harry Caine (Lluís Homar) who revisits a tragic episode in his past when a stranger turns up on his doorstep in Madrid wanting to collaborate with him on a new film. We head back to 1992 and learn how a young woman, a secretary and sometime call-girl called Lena (Penélope Cruz), came to move in with her overbearing millionaire boss, Ernesto Martel. Two years later she stars in a film financed by Martel and directed by Caine, who is then known as Mateo Blanco and is not yet blind. Lena’s jealous husband orders his son to video his wife’s every move while filming, which he then watches every night with a lip-reader at his side to interpret the dialogue. The mood is oppressive and sometimes maudlin.
‘My stories today offer me less room for humour,’ he says. ‘So I probably d need to start thinking of stories which I can write as comedies. When I do, I hope I’ll be as gifted for comedy as I have been up to now.’ As we talk, he remembers that the couple of stories which he’s been writing recently are also ‘very black’ in tone. His voice betrays an inner shrug: must try harder. ‘I find that I have two nearly opposing trends,’ he continues. ‘On the one hand there’s this gravity, this seriousness. And on the other there’s this absurd comedy. Those are the two versions of me of which I’m now much more conscious. I feel more than ever that I need to develop both at the same time. I didn’t need it two or three years ago. Now is the moment. I need to find a way. I don’t know how. Maybe the best way is either to make a straight comedy or a straight drama, and that’s it.’
It’s hard to imagine Almodóvar making such a simple choice. He’s known for telling stories full of wonderful contrivances with an effortlessness that allows him to mix kitsch with tragedy, melodrama with realism. But this new film is a strange beast. It continues the more reflective mood of his last three films, ‘Talk to Her’, ‘Bad Education’ and ‘Volver’, but it lacks the playful edge that made the latter the warmest of tragedies. It’s only when I re-watch ‘All About My Mother’, Almodóvar’s shorter, punchier film from 1999, that I realise just how much he ties himself up in knots with his new film. That earlier movie tells a story that’s no less wild – Cruz plays a nun in Barcelona who sleeps with a transvestite and contracts HIV – but the difference with ‘Broken Embraces’ is that here Almodóvar keeps shining a light in our eyes, upending us, discomfiting us. It makes the viewing experience disjointed and a little unsatisfying – but you could argue that it also suits the film’s themes of losing control of oneself, one’s destiny and one’s grip on the people we love.
It’s maybe Almodóvar’s most cerebral film. But whether that will suit his many loyal fans remains to be seen. ‘This movie is really good to see twice,’ he says. ‘It’s not a very commercially friendly thing to say. It’s not a good marketing line: you have to see this movie twice!’ Now he’s laughing. ‘But it’s true that, for me, it’s complex in the best sense. It’s not a movie that goes in one direction. Also, there are a lot of important themes. It’s a great love story. It’s also a great story about cinema, about the fragility of cinema if someone steps in between the author and the film. It’s about parents, children and guilt. It’s also a declaration of love for my profession.’
So perhaps we should see ‘Broken Embraces’ as Almodóvar looking in the mirror and forgive him some of the vanities we allow ourselves when we do the same. View it partly as an autobiography, or at least as a self-critical essay, and it’s more rewarding.
Most obviously, the main character is a filmmaker and it features snippets of a movie within a movie called ‘Girls and Suitcases’: this made-up film with its hysterical edge, laced with drugs and lurid colours, will be recognisable to the director’s fans as a playful spin on his own 1989 film ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’. Its presence – brighter and more arch than the rest of the film – reminds us how Almodóvar has moved away from the more anarchic, colourful melodramas and black comedies with which he made his name. Moreover, the snatched, grainy images produced by cheap technology which we see when Cruz is being followed, the films-within-a-film, the slipping away of control from one filmmaker into the hands of another – these are all critical modern issues, explains Almodóvar, in an age of piracy, digital and phones with cameras.
‘These are things that are happening and I don’t want to reject them as a director,’ he says. ‘I want to be aware of them and I want them to be in my films.’
He talks as if he’s at a turning point in his life as a filmmaker. ‘I feel the last few films, the films I’ve made this century, have opened me up to a second career,’ he reflects. ‘I feel that I’m starting a second stage in my filmmaking. I’m exploring new fields, new subjects and new themes that will take me further into new territory.’
Author: Dave Calhoun
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