Friday, October 25, 2013

FI: Broken Embraces

Broken Embraces / Los abrazos rotos
Spain, 2008
Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Throughout his career, Pedro Almodóvar has freely transgressed boundaries of taste as well as genre and style. Along the way, he has made his influences plain: Sirk, Fassbinder, "women's pictures" and screwball comedies, among many others—during grad school, one of my coursemates wrote a dissertation on how Almodóvar's early shorts drew on John Waters's trashy aesthetic. With Broken Embraces, Almodóvar displays an interest in the formal and story elements of film noir, bringing along healthy doses of Hitchcockian psychodrama and self-referential nods. There's a frame story, a shady villain from out of the past, even a femme fatale, but the film itself is shot in Almodóvar's traditionally-sumptuous, saturated style rather than noir's typical black and white. Still, he uses this noir backdrop to examine questions of art, love, and identity.

Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar) was a prominent film director until he lost his eyesight some fourteen years ago. Since then, he has been working as a screenwriter under the name "Harry Caine," collaborating with his agent Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her twenty-something son Diego (Tamar Novas). But after learning of the death of a businessman called Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) and receiving a visit from a young director calling himself "Ray X" (Rubén Ochandiano), Caine begins to relate the story of his final film as a director, Chicas y maletas ("Girls and Suitcases," which bears a striking similarity to Almodóvar's own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), and its star, Martel's mistress Lena (Penélope Cruz). From there, the story takes on a much pulpier edge (befitting a name like Harry Caine), depicting a tragic mix of lust, power, jealousy, abuse, and betrayal.

Broken Embraces builds portent through long takes, "surveillance" shots, and a sense of fatalism that makes the audience feel like things HAD to go this way, even as it manages to bundle in surprises. Along the way, he quotes Hitchcockian tropes—staircases, the color red, how much Cruz resembles Tippi Hedren when she tries on a platinum blonde wig—that foreground the men's obsession with Lena. Built in and around that, Almodóvar uses Mateo/Harry's profession as a way to examine creative collaboration and the sorts of emotional tempests that inevitably follow such artsy, emotional types, particularly in the intense relationship between directors and stars. This is all well and good, you're probably saying, but is it any good? For me, Broken Embraces's pulp patina prevents it from hitting the deep, genuinely-emotional places Almodóvar reaches in Talk To Her or All About My Mother, but at the same time, its self-awareness never nears the camp of Women on the Verge... or his early work. It hits the tonal sweet-spot between these extremes, and functions as a solid, well-performed, well put-together potboiler with a beautiful eye for composition, color, and set design. But for most of the running time, it engages on a more cerebral—focused on what happened and how—than emotional level, so it's possible to appreciate the craft while still coming away cold.

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