BROKEN EMBRACES - Review

A new Pedro Almodovar film is always welcome but I have to admit I was filled with some trepidation after reading some rather mixed reviews about Broken Embraces. Needn't have worried, the Spanish auteur has not lost his touch and this is a thoroughly absorbing and mesmerising film with a neat post-modernist twist on the director's own back catalogue. It isn't the best of recent Almodovar films but it is still well worth indulging in.

The film at once attempts a dissection of the creative process - why the central character, blind former director Mateo (a stunning performance from Lluis Homar) writes and wants to make films - and what happens when that impulse is forcibly taken away from you by other people, in this case by the jealous husband Ernesto (José Luis Gomez) of Lena (a spectacular Penelope Cruz), one time prostitute and secretary and now the star of Mateo's film. The story of how Mateo's film, starring Lena, was taken out of his control by Ernesto and how he ended up blind from an 'accident', unfolds in multiple flashbacks between the Madrid of the present day, of 1992 and 1994, and through various films within the film.

For example, the gay son of Ernesto, at the behest of his father, proceeds to document the making of Mateo's film Girls And Suitcases on video and much of the developing love story between Mateo and Lena is told through the rushes played back to an ever angrier Ernesto. Almodovar also wears his film references well. In a climactic confrontation between the son and Lena, there's a wonderful homage to Peeping Tom as she grabs the tripod and threatens him with it. Girls And Suitcases is more or less a revisioning and recreation of Almodovar's breakthrough hit Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown and comes complete with spiked gazpacho, ripped out telephones and burnt beds as well as two gorgeous little cameos from Rossy De Palma and Chus Lampreave, members of Almodovar's original rep company and stars of Women.

It's a rhapsodic treatise on love, the relationship between Mateo and Lena is told with all the melodramatic power found in Douglas Sirk films (and his Magnificent Obsession gets a name check) and uses spectacular landscapes in Lanzarote as a backdrop to their windswept love affair; it's also about the self-destruction of relationships, the very Broken Embraces of the titl

This includes visual metaphors such as Mateo's torn up photo collection which Almodovar gradually tracks in on as Diego (a ravishing Tamar Novas), the son of his equally jealous production manager Judit (Bianca Portillo), starts to piece them back together; the devastating car crash that happens just as Mateo and Lena are embracing; the domestic violence used as punishment on Lena by Ernesto which is eerily reflected in the filming of Girls And Suitcases as De Palma pushes Cruz down a flight of stairs so that the film can continue filming as Lena has suffered a broken leg as a result of Ernesto's actions.

This is again neatly summed up visually by a series of dissolves of x-rays that again show how love is so fragile and life is composed of a collision of actions and consequences. Broken embraces, broken bones. Mateo's prime function in the film, as an author and director, is to pick up the pieces of a failed career and stop blaming himself for Lena's death in the car crash.

His recovery is epitomised by the way Diego helps him articulate much of this back story whist they spend several days together alone and by the later confession of his production manager Judit that she helped Ernesto scupper the release of Girls And Suitcases and re-edit it so that it would be a flop. Mateo recovers the original takes from the film and sets about re-editing and restoring the film as he would have wanted it. A very apt metaphor for the entire narrative in the way that lives and creativity are bound together and their loss can be recovered from by re-engaging in the creative act. There is also a great deal in the film about identity and the slippage between Lena's life as Ernesto's mistress, a former prostitute and secretary and the various constructed identities on the film set are highlighted in her audition with Mateo where she is augmented with various wigs to look like Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn.

There is also a major theme of how fathers relate to their sons; with Ernesto manipulating his own gay son, whom he pretty much loathes, into spying on and betraying his own mother; with Mateo and Diego's relationship, at first simply a male friendship, then later revealed to be yet another parent and child bond. This is neatly summarised in the film's opening when Mateo relates the story of author Arthur Miller's estrangement from his own autistic son and their eventual rehabilitation. Almodovar pretty much sets the stall out for that part of the narrative in the story that Mateo relates.

As with many of Almodovar's successes this is beautifully constructed, visually immaculate and delves further into his recent admiration of Hitchcock. The scoring from Alberto Iglesias is a heightened homage to Herrmann's beautiful score for Vertigo and many of the noirish elements from Vertigo inform the film's melodramatic tensions. It only stumbles at the very end when Judit drags Mateo and Diego to a local bar, downs a bottle of gin, and spends quarter of an hour more or less telling the audience where all the pieces of the narrative fit together. The audience deserves a slightly better constructed ending after making their way through the weave of complex sub-plots and flash backs. And in Girls And Suitcases Almodovar does somewhat send the film into perhaps an overindulgent homage to himself whereas most of the film is his own homage to Powell, Hitchcock, Ray, Minnelli and Sirk amongst others.

Still, it's an absorbing, delicious film with two central performances from Lluis Homar and Penelope Cruz that will keep you hooked right through to the end and it's a visual treat, with the director's customary attention to detail in costumes and production design. Recommended.

BROKEN EMBRACES (Cert 15. Released August 28th 2009. Directed by Pedro Almodovar)

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