Thursday, February 11, 2010

Broken Embraces: Doomed love

Broken Embraces (2010) • View trailer for Broken Embraces
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for nudity, sexual candor, profanity and brief violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.11.10
Buy DVD: Broken Embraces • Buy Blu-Ray: Broken Embraces [Blu-ray]

Federico Fellini had his 8-1/2  recently transformed into the stage and screen musical Nine  Franois Truffaut gave us Day for Night, and Bob Fosse indulged in All That Jazz.

Sooner or later, big-screen impresarios can't resist making a movie about the movie-making process ... and, simultaneously, about their own involvement with cinema.
While watching an old movie on TV, Lena (Penelope Cruz) identifies so
strongly with one scene that she dissolves into tears. Mateo (Lluis Homar),
instinctively understanding her mood, immortalizes their love -- at that
precise moment -- by setting his camera on automatic and photographing them
in firm embrace, as they cuddle on the couch.

And with women. Always with women.

Now Pedro Almodovar has succumbed to the temptation (although it could be argued that every one of this writer/director's movies is intensely personal and semi-autobiographical in some way). The well-titled Broken Embraces is the saga of a filmmaker who fashions his newest movie around the leading lady with whom he falls in love at first sight; she, in turn, desperately wishes to abandon the aging, wealthy and quite powerful man who has kept her as the most prized bird in his gilded cage.

In true Almodovar fashion, though, the story unfolds in elliptical fashion, beginning with an extended prologue that introduces Harry Caine (Llu’s Homar, quite persuasive as a man in great pain), a blind writer who has "become" his former pseudonym. He is cared for by two "handlers": Judit (Blanca Portillo, displaying impressively layered depths), an agent of sorts; and Diego (Tamar Novas), her grown son, who acts as the writer's secretary, typist and guide.

Harry and Diego have a comfortable working relationship, and Homar and Novas share many warm scenes together. Indeed, theirs may be the strongest emotional bond in a film laden with interpersonal dynamics.

The initial information dump is swift. We meet Harry one morning as he indulges in an unlikely quickie with an all-too-willing blonde stranger. (This is, after all, a European film.) Judit arrives shortly thereafter, disapproval etched all over her face, behaving more like a long-suffering wife than a working colleague.

Diego has a second job as DJ at a sexually ambiguous nightclub, where drugs and alcohol flow freely. Harry is visited by a creepy young man who calls himself "Ray X" (Ruben Ochandiano), claims to be a filmmaker  on the basis of a single documentary he made "14 years ago"  and wishes to collaborate with Caine on a new project.

Harry, suspicious for reasons we're not yet able to guess, rebuffs Ray.

Elsewhere, in the mists of events long gone, a failed actress named Lena (Penelope Cruz, utterly effervescent), suddenly desperate for money because of her father's poor health, finds herself out of options.

Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez, quietly menacing), the ruthless businessman for whom she works as a secretary, has silently lusted after her for years; we suspect he gave her this job only because he knew that she once worked as a call girl.

Martel intercedes on Lena's father's behalf; she understands the unspoken price behind his assistance. The look on Cruz's face is heartbreaking, as it blends resignation, reluctance and grim resolve.

She becomes his mistress.

Perhaps even willingly, at first. Perhaps she even grows to care for him.

At first.

But after a few years, Lena chafes at the realization that she's just another of Martel's possessions, despite the fact that he genuinely adores her. She grows restless. When Martel's son Ernesto Jr.  a geeky, effeminate young man despised by his father  comes for a visit, she seizes his presence as an excuse to seek a screen test at a nearby film studio.

The resident director, Mateo Blanco, is prepping his next project. We recognize Mateo as Harry Caine, and understand now that Caine is the nom de plume with which he signs his literary works, stories and scripts. Judit, ever-present here as well, is his indispensable production assistant.

Mateo, at this point in his past quite able to see, is enchanted by Lena. She aces the screen test in a dazzling sequence wherein Cruz evokes strong memories of Audrey Hepburn. Martel, desperate to keep Lena happy, agrees to finance the film ... with the condition that his son be allowed to shoot a making-of documentary.

The young man, thrilled by his proximity to Mateo, takes this assignment very seriously. Martel, however, views this 'documentary' as nothing more than a means to keep a close eye on Lena.

We're never entirely sure of the degree to which Ernesto Jr. is complicit in this deception  whether he willingly turns over the fresh footage each evening, or whether his father snatches it  but it remains one of many betrayals either way: a perversion of the young man's own artistic ambitions, and an act that will leave long-lasting scars.

As, indeed, many other subsequent actions will.

Because despite the care with which they attempt to conduct their clandestine affair, Mateo and Lena can't help being caught with increasingly compromising expressions by Ernesto Jr.'s ubiquitous camera; Martel, torturing himself each evening, becomes ever more agitated.

Almodovar, as always, both exploits and deconstructs his own artistic medium; sequences and individual moments within Broken Embraces, by turns, echo Fellini, Truffaut and most particularly Alfred Hitchcock. Suspense builds, but tension is alleviated by our occasional glimpses of scenes from Mateo's movie: a farcical comedy called Girls and Suitcases that feels vaguely like Almodovar's own 1987 film, Women on the Verge of the Nervous Breakdown.

The footage we see from Ernesto Jr.'s video camera  as Martel watches it each evening, employing a lip-reader to get every possible word that Lena and Mateo speak  feels increasingly intrusive: a voyeuristic nod to Hitchcock's Rear Window that climaxes when the frustrated and humiliated Lena finally abandons all pretense.

She simultaneously confronts Martel on camera and in person, providing a voice-over for her own bitter words on camera.

Later, having fled to the sanctuary of a cozy bungalow at a beach resort, Lena and Mateo watch a movie on their little TV set: director Roberto Rossellini's 1954 film Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy), which stars George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman as an American couple who, their marriage collapsing, take a trip to Italy.

Lena identifies so strongly with one scene that she dissolves into tears; Mateo, sensing what she desires, immortalizes their love by setting his camera on automatic and photographing them in firm embrace.

Almodovar seems to suggest, at such moments, that representations of love  photographs, reels of film celluloid  are more permanent than love itself: that such frozen moments can survive the tragedies of real life. At the same time, Broken Embraces argues that confession is good for the soul, and that artistic fulfillment is even better. If loss is the opposite of love, it, too, can be confronted and beaten.

Perhaps more crucially, even betrayal can be forgiven.

Almodovar's films are always whimsical, self-referential and at times maddeningly twee, and this one's more self-indulgent than most.

At 128 minutes, Broken Embraces threatens to wear out its welcome more than once; Almodovar has Quentin Tarantino's inclination to toss in everything that springs to mind, regardless of consequence. Both men make movies that feel like works in progress, even when finished; indeed, Almodovar already speaks of the scenes he wishes to add to the DVD release of Broken Embraces.

His nine pages of director's notes  part of this film's press kit  should be handed to every patron watching the film; then, at least, everybody would have a sense of what motivates many of Almodovar's artistic decisions.

I could argue, however, that a film requiring the equivalent of a lengthy cheat-sheet is flawed at best. Watchable, certainly, if only for Cruz's never less than luminous performance.

But a rewarding way to have spent two hours?

I'm still working on that one.

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