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).
* * * 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.