For fans of Spanish cinema, casual or otherwise, the last 20 years or so have been like living in a universe according to the ingeniously mischievous mind of Pedro Almodovar. The one-time “enfant terrible” of European cinema has once again come up with a melodramatic tale, which has all cinephiles of the world ready to jump in with their not so humble interpretations.
“Broken Embraces” (Los Abrazos Rotos, 2009), Almodovar’s latest offering, has him teaming up for the fourth time with the always engaging and breathtakingly beautiful Academy Award winner, Penelope Cruz (Vicky Christina Barcelona, 2008). While it would be easy to categorize Cruz as just his muse, he prefers to see her as someone who inspires in him the confidence to be a better director, and he in turn helps her to be a better actress.
The neo-noir look and feel of the film takes the viewers on a visually stunning journey from the present to the past and back again. The multi-layered storyline has Almodovar create a film-in-a film, where a director and his muse fall head over heels for each other during a film shoot; while being filmed for a behind the scenes documentary by the milquetoasty son of the actress’ considerably older boyfriend, the producer.
Lluis Homar (Bad Education, 2004) plays a blind screenwriter in Madrid with the assumed name of “Harry Caine” with great skill and restrain; the circumstances of his blindness prompt him to block out his former life as a film director named “Mateo Blanco.”
Cruz inhabits the role of “Lena”- a secretary, a part-time escort, an aspiring actress and a mistress of a powerful, yet suspicious business tycoon, with as much as ease as one might expect from her considerable acting talents.
While Almodovar’s previous films mostly had strong women as the lead protagonist, this time “Harry” and “Lena” are given almost equal billing regarding the depth of their roles and their time on-screen. The film is definitely better for this seemingly little fact.
Having said that, Almodovar never disappoints in making his lead actresses the most intoxicating and passionate of characters cine-goers would have ever seen. The gorgeous “Lena” looks even more lovely as she plays an Audrey Hepburnesque looking character in the film-in-a-film, “Girls and Suitcases.”
He pays tribute to not only Hollywood filmmaking geniuses like Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk in the styling, but also openly plagiarizes his own breakthrough film, the devilishly funny “Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown”(1988), scene for scene in “Girls and Suitcases.”
This film might be more laid back or even more melancholic than his more recent work like “All About My Mother,” “Talk to Her“ and “Volver,” but it is certainly not lacking in his customary mischief and wit.
Right at the beginning, we see the blind “Caine” seduce a much younger but attractive Good Samaritan who had helped him cross the street. James Bond and Casanova could not do any better with a similar handicap. Even the name “Harry Caine” sounds like a character named “Harry Palmer,” played by the ubiquitous but brilliant Michael Caine in the 1960s spy classic, “The Ipcress Files.”
There is absolutely no doubt that Almodovar is the natural successor to Luis Bunuel, the legendary filmmaker who dominated Spanish cinema for most of the last century; and just like Bunuel, he has a storytelling style which is completely different and quite impossible to copy.
The stratospheric standards of his previously award-winning works are sometimes even difficult for Almodovar to match and it just might be a bridge too far for him to cross on this effort.
However, even a little less brilliant film like “Broken Embraces” would pass as a great effort in the hands of a lesser director. As they say, only the mediocre are always at their best.