Saturday, 14 November 2009

Broken Embraces (2009)

This is Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar's 17th film and the fourth to feature his latest muse Penelope Cruz, an actress who is always better in her Spanish-speaking roles, despite her recent Oscar win for the Woody Allen film. Almodovar claims that she is the only woman who might just tempt him away from his own sexual predilections. I must concur that she is indeed a lust-object in this movie with a gorgeous body and some not-so-discreet nudity. However, I personally find her looks rather weird, especially when she is made up to evoke Audrey Hepburn, as she is here.

None of this is really relevant to reviewing the film which has not yet opened Stateside, despite the director's growing popularity there. In his canon of very individualistic movies, I would not put this in the top drawer, although he brings to the table his usual combination of vibrant colours, strong roles for women, and full-blown melodrama. The major difference here is that the main role belongs to a full-blooded male, actor Lluis Homar, playing a previously famous movie director named Mateo Blanco, who has lost his sight in a car accident and who now only responds to the name of Harry Caine, his screenwriting nom de plume. Moving between the present and the early 90s, we follow both his story and that of Ms. Cruz. She plays a failed actress, part-time call girl, and secretary to a wealthy magnate, Martel, becoming his mistress after he provides medical treatment for her dying father. They live a life of opulence, with he more enamoured of her charms than she is of his. She yearns to give acting another go and auditions for Homar who immediately succumbs to her beauty and offers her the lead role in his next production 'Girls and Suitcases'. Martel takes on the producer's role and keeps his own spies on the set, together with his awkward gay young son who is technically shooting a documentary on the making of the film.

Cruz and Homar can not resist each other and are soon involved in a passionate affair, which is reported back to Martel by his straight-faced, lip-reading private detective, together with verbatim reports of Cruz' aversion to Martel's love-making. However when Cruz threatens to leave him, he pushes her down the stairs, and the script must now be adapted for a lead actress with her leg in a cast. She agrees to stay with Martel until the film is finished in exchange for his not pulling the finance. However when she and her lover take off together for a break on a volcanic island in the Canaries, Martel gets the film re-edited with the worst takes and premieres it to disastrous reviews.

Back in the present with the blind Homar (Cruz is long since dead) still in demand as a screenwriter, the news of Martel's death triggers a series of revelations from his longstanding female agent, her 18-year old son, and the grownup son of the dead magnate, including the true history of the film's failure. Given the opportunity to re-cut the movie and put it back together in his own director's cut, Caine becomes Blanco once more. One can take this as Almodovar's saying that a film must express the director's personal vision and that only this gives his life meaning. The film abounds with references to other movies including Almodovar's own and it is fun to recognise these. This film is in the end a movie about movies and their creation. However, the pace here is far too leisurely and self-indulgent to provide Almodovar's regular themes of love, sex, and death with the clear focus that they deserve.
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