Broken Embraces opens Friday in select theaters
There is a moment right around the midpoint of Pedro Almodóvar's Broken Embraces in which the plot seems about to take a sudden, sharp curve that will throw the primary conflict binding together every thread of the narrative into disarray.
At this moment, Almodóvar's deceptively light touch has everything perfectly in place: the bedsheets, Penélope Cruz's cigarette, the light pouring in from the French windows. He places Cruz squarely in the center of the frame, creating a symmetry that serves as a lovely contradiction of this moment of deep uncertainty.
At this suddenly tense moment, the director has a decision to make—does he tease out the tension? Does he have Cruz overtly display the potential ramifications of the situation to make sure the audience is caught up? Does he milk it for emotional impact? No. He does what any sensible artist on top of his game should do: He plays it for a laugh. And it's pitch-perfect. Which is not say he had to play it that way. All evidence in Broken Embraces points to the notion that, at least when he is in his instantly recognizable world of bold imagery conveying humanity's extreme fragility, Almodóvar can do anything.
In Broken Embraces, he tells the story of a film director-turned-writer named Mateo Blanco, who now goes exclusively by his pen name of Harry Caine. The film unfolds in two time frames: the present and 14 years earlier, as Mateo is directing a film starring Lena (Cruz, who has never been better), a first-time actress who has trapped herself in a relationship with the financier who bankrolled Mateo's film. In the present, Mateo (now Harry) recounts the story of his relationship with Lena and the film they made to his young assistant. Usually, this device of having a character remembering his past is a lame way for filmmakers to cheat their way into establishing a voiceover that will clarify the narrative. But both tenses of Broken Embraces are vibrant, with an equal share of believable relationships and thoughtfully composed frames.
Indeed, I didn't even notice the fact that Broken Embraces had used such a typically grating narrative device until I had left the theater. This, along with the moment described above, exemplifies what good hands you are in when you watch an Almodóvar film. Without calling attention to his technique, Almodóvar—perhaps more than anyone else working in movies—can secure a rich and willful involvement from his audience. His is not a manipulative technique that drags you into its emotional landscape by tricking you into mistaking pity for empathy; it's a fully realized approach with characters whose behavior and mannerisms help to fully color them in. The lovers, artists and cheaters in Broken Embraces are not mechanisms of the story; the story is an outgrowth of them. Almodóvar doesn't apologize for his characters—the film opens with an aggressive act of seduction by Harry, and we learn that Lena used to hook a little on the side—nor does he ask them to apologize for themselves.
Almodóvar has a manner of floating his camera into scenes before zeroing in on faces, and framing characters with art and color that defines them. With camera movement and rich detail in a meticulous visual vernacular, he is constantly giving you more information than you might realize you're getting. He offers a clear rendering of a complex narrative, without ever shaping a scene simply around exposition. When Mateo falls in love with Lena, the dialogue is not important; instead, it's the series of shots of Lena trying on wigs and posing for Mateo's camera. She is Audrey Hepburn, say Mateo's makeup artists, or she is Goldie Hawn. She is cinema, says Almodóvar. And Broken Embraces, like much of Almodóvar's work, is an epic mash note to movies themselves, so it only makes sense that he'd have Mateo fall in love with Lena by making her the embodiment of his own deepest passion.
And how, as an audience member, can one not fall in love with Lena, and Broken Embraces, and then fall in love with movies all over again, through Almodóvar's work? As he nails every camera move, every plot turn, every set decoration, and then—topping himself—executes a snappy scene from a movie within a movie that is tonally different from the movie proper but just as immaculate—Almodóvar has made not so much a great film as the Platonic ideal of a film. It's the standard against which you could measure any film with similar goals, which is to say a film that aims to be engaging, funny, moving and personal. Broken Embraces is effortlessly all of these things. Thus, the extent to which any movie is similar to Broken Embraces is the extent to which it succeeds.