Fourteen years ago, a writer (Lluís Homar) was involved in a brutal car crash on the island of Lanzarote. In the accident, he loses his sight, and also Lena, the love of his life. This man uses two names: Harry Caine, a playful pseudonym with which he signs his literary works, stories and scripts, and Mateo Blanco, his real name, with which he lives and signs the film he directs. After the accident, Mateo Blanco reduces himself to his pseudonym, Harry Caine. If he can’t direct films he can only survive with the idea that Mateo Blanco died on Lanzarote with his beloved Lena (Penélope Cruz).

6 Nov 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2009 - 12:00 AM

Almodóvar plays out familiar riffs to make beautiful music.

* * * 1/2 (3.5 STARS): There is enough plot in Broken Embraces for half a dozen movies. For some that might sound too much like hard work, but this a Pedro Almodovar film so in fact, such busyness is not only welcome, it’s de rigueur.

One thing that movies do well is 'time’ – as in play with it, mould it, fold it, compress it and/or stretch it out. Almodovar performs quite a few tricks like that, with Time, here. We move from the present and into the 90s and back again. And back and forth again.

For those with little patience, you could distil the story of the film as one of a tragic love triangle. You could write that and be accurate but you would be wrong. Like Almodovar’s best work the movie is really about mood, character and the sensuous pleasures derived from the cinema itself...the elegance of a camera move or the way light plays on the perfect skin of a movie star. Some say Broken Embraces pays homage to Hitchcock and to be sure there is here, when it comes to romance and desire, a shared sense of danger and intrigue, as well as an eye-popping colour scheme seemingly gleaned from Vertigo. (Sex is fun and funny, true desire can kill). But in a sense such comparisons are movie-buff dead-ends and beside the point. Almodovar is playing with his own favourite ideas here. There are riffs here we’ve seen Almodovar play out quite a bit before; a movie making setting, a time-tripping structure and a gorgeous female lead – a sufferer in love and a lover who suffers for it. But it is not so much a 'mad love', but one so sincere and truthful it’s nearly wholesome.

The core of the film revolves around this character, Lena, played by Penelope Cruz, and it’s a great part because it’s all about role-play. When we meet Lena, she’s a devoted daughter willing to turn tricks to raise money to ease the suffering of her ailing dad. She ends Broken Embraces, a movie star. In between, she 'plays’ out 'dutiful’ wife to a mean-spirited millionaire Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez) while she passionately pursues a love affair with famous movie director Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar).

Mateo narrates the film as a completely different character. We meet him first as a blind screenwriter who calls himself Harry Caine. He pitches his tragi-comic love affair with Lena like a screenplay in the making to Diego (Tamar Novas), an aspiring filmmaker, who is also the son of Judit (Blanca Portillo), Mateo/Harry’s housekeeper and minder. Judit is in love with Harry/Mateo and she does a poor job at hiding it.

As far as Almodovar plots come Broken Embraces is sane and pretty easy and it’s playful too. Its construction is deliberately and obviously a play on movie-constructs. Led to believe Mateo/Harry can justify all the films loose ends and mysteries we follow willingly and find ourselves in a narrative dead end.

Here every character has a place, a reason, a story and it’s only when they get to 'act-out" their arc there is a final pay-off.

Indeed the movie is full of puns and double-entendre, most of it an ironic play on the movies. At one point Martel has Mateo and Lena followed by his gay son Ernesto Jr (Ruben Ochandiano), their every action recorded on video while they are making their movie, an innocuous comedy called 'Girls and Suitcases'. He hires a lip reader so he can learn what they are saying, when it’s plain just from the body language that they are in love.

Still, perhaps the strongest and most powerful movie 'object’ in Broken Embraces is Cruz. Almodovar, like Mateo designs her and 'constructs’ her into this figure we can accept. We fall willingly into her emotional embrace. It’s often said that movie stars are not 'real’. But here, Cruz is creased and bent by the pressures the movie’s hectic plot pounds her with. She is never less than 'perfect’, but she also deeply human and no longer impossible"¦ and that’s movie magic.

9 Nov 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 9 Nov 2009 - 12:00 AM

Almodóvar and Cruz fail to engage this time around.

* * * (3 STARS)
: After mostly getting thumbs down from the critics at the Cannes International Film Festival in May, Pedro Almodóvar's Broken Embraces opened weakly in Spain and wound up earning less than €4 million ($A6.5 million), the director’s worst result on home turf for many years.

I can see why. A melancholy melodrama, the fourth collaboration with his muse Penélope Cruz is a disappointment on many levels: the script is long-winded, the plot is overly convoluted, a key relationship isn’t convincing, and the characters aren’t especially likable or engaging; there is no one to embrace.

The net result: Some fine acting, particularly from Lluís Homar and Blanca Portillo, is wasted on this laboured, self-indulgent tale of deceit, betrayal and revenge. Homar plays a blind screenwriter who calls himself Harry Caine; he was a successful film director under his real name, Mateo Blanco, before he lost his eyesight.

Caine is cared for by his agent and former production manager Judit (Portillo) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas). The film opens with a gratuitous and nonsensical sex scene involving Caine and a blonde journalist. Then, Caine and Judit learn of the death of a corrupt businessman, Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez). Soon after, a bumptious young fellow who introduces himself as Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano) begs Caine to help him with a script that’s intended as an act of vengeance against his father.

The narrative then flashes back to 1992, shortly before Martel begins an affair with Lena (Cruz), his secretary, wannabe actress and part-time escort. The connections between these characters, and the circumstances which blinded Blanco, are eventually explained, but without the requisite suspense or excitement: most of the revelations are predictable.

As a measure of the director’s self-indulgence, Lena is seen shooting a comedy entitled 'Girls and Suitcases', a re-working of Almodóvar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

He got the idea for Broken Embraces in 2006 when he was suffering terribly from migraines and spent hours in a darkened room, wondering what it would be like to go blind: the inspiration for the character of Mateo. He’s described the film as his love letter to cinema, peppered with references to Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 classic Voyage to Italy, Douglas Sirk and Jules Dassin, and the dangerous staircases which recall Henry Hathaway’s 1940s noir Kiss of Death.

Cruz looks luminous, as ever, decked out in costumes and wigs to resemble, at various times, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren. She’s asked to portray three different personas, the dutiful daughter, the mistress, and Pina in 'Girls and Suitcases', running the full gamut of emotions from playfulness and sensuality to anger and despair. But it’s a stretch to believe that Lena, even as a gold-digger, would have such a passionate affair with the bland Martel. Homar and Portillo register most strongly as a couple whose ambivalent relationship is one of the key plot points. Kudos to the make-up team for the highly effective aging of Blanco/Caine, Judit and Ray X.

This is the Spanish director’s 17th movie in a career stretching over 30 years. 'This is the most difficult movie I have ever made and it was necessary to make 16 movies before I was ready to do it," he said. Alas, this candy-coloured but morose confection is far from his best or most distinctive work.

Related videos


2 hours 7 min
In Cinemas 17 December 2009,