TIFF 09 Review: Broken Embraces
Director: Pedro Almodóvar (Dark Habits, Bad Education, All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Volver)
Writer: Pedro Almodóvar
Producer: Esther García
Starring: Penélope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Blanca Portillo, Jose Luis Gomez, Ruben Ochandiano
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 127 min.
Few, if any, film makers in the world today can be classified as auteur in their strikingly obvious work as readily as Pedro Almodóvar. You won’t find a director working today with a better eye for color theory and technique and it is equally doubtful you’ll find someone who is so obvious in their painstaking, meticulous attention to set detail and lighting. He’s been doing this type of film for so long that one would think at some point he would almost become a parody of himself as he churns out yet another delicious operatic yarn of colorful drama. But the beauty and brilliance of each and every shot (and I mean every shot) in his latest film, Broken Embraces just goes to show that a director can keep on doing what they do well and continue to amaze audiences without pandering or becoming a stale caricature of themselves.
The narrative in hindsight is really rather simple. A blinded screenwriter/director recalls his past to a young protégé in which he accounts for his time with a beautiful young actress with whom he falls in love. Unfortunately she is attached to an older, sugar daddy who also happens to be financing the film the two are making. As he slowly uncovers the love affair between the two, things begin to get hairy with a camera spying son and a jealousy bordering on psychotic which slowly unveils shocking truths leading up to the director’s blindness, loneliness and subsequent working block.
While the movie really teeters on the brink of soap opera territory, three things manage to keep the melodrama within tolerable, indeed enjoyable, limits. Firstly is the non hand holding style narrative. As mentioned above the story is rather simple – in hindsight. But to get to the end it can be quite the jostling ride that uses flashbacks in what feels like a non-linear pattern of story telling. It could be considered almost convoluted if the viewer isn’t paying close enough attention. This narrative style helps keep the viewer on his/her toes and thereby engrossed in the story as the reveals begin to uncover and revelations come into light.
Second is of course the director’s use of his usual actors. Anyone with even only a superficial knowledge of Almodóvar films will recognize lots of familiar faces (most notably Blanca Portillo and Lola Duenas among others). At the obvious forefront, at least in terms of sheer star power (particularly coming off of her Oscar win), is muse, Penélope Cruz. The camera makes no bones about the love of this star’s physical beauty. It closes in on her face at every opportunity and when that’s not available we’re treated to various, almost “stagy”, sexy poses from afar. Beyond just that, Almodóvar puts Cruz through what looks like quite the grueling course in costume, make-up and hair design. Some of the movie almost feels like a behind the scenes look at a modeling shoot for Vanity Fair. At one point one would swear Audrey Hepburn has returned from the grave to give us one last performance. While this is a middle of the road performance from Cruz, nonetheless it is one that is very solid and it’s easy to see why she’s become the super-star that she has.
Lastly of course is the style personified. Even if the story doesn’t grab you; even if the actors and dialogue don’t keep you intrigued, I don’t see how anyone with any sense of appreciation for art can’t look at the screen for the entire running time of this film and not be completely mesmerized by the colorful, moving painting on display. Each and every single shot throughout this picture is nothing short of gorgeous; bordering on profound with the amount of time and preparation of the framing, lighting and color aesthetic that obviously goes into every shot. If I had my way, I’d steal frames from the movie and hang them all over my house. Of course choosing which frames to hang would be an exercise of the impossible as, as I said, they’re all fabulous.
While I’m no film historian, even I could pick up on the obvious influences here. While maintaining Almodóvar’s unique auteur vision, the film gives off quite the noir vibe at many turns which implicates something dastardly might occur at any moment. As tension builds and schemes are plotted you can almost feel Hitchcock’s presence in the room as well. And even the movie within the movie has elements of the French New Wave. And of course there are some winks to the audience of Almodóvar’s past work as well – though this is of little importance to the film.
So the movie is quite enjoyable to take in on an artistic level and on a technical level. Students of film history will find much to love about the obvious influences at play here and for those that don’t feel the need for explosions or gang fights (or even quite the charm or excitement in Volver) in their movie but are simply looking for quality melodrama that makes a few interesting choices in terms of exposition and visual flare, this should be right up your alley. It’s certainly not Almodóvar at the top of his game, but it is a more than solid entry that I look forward to revisiting soon.