Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos)

Broken Embraces

An embrace to take them away from the hideousness of the decor, at least for a little while.

(2009) Thriller (Sony Classics) Penelope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Blanca Portilla, Tamar Novas, Kiti Manver, Jose Luis Garcia, Chus Lampreave, Lola Duenas, Angela Molina, Ruben Ochandiano. Directed by Pedro Almodovar

We are all of us the sum total of all the people we have been in our lives. That which we are is a direct result of that which we were. In some cases, what we were is so far from what we are now that they are almost different lives.

Harry Caine – a clever play of Orson Welles’ Harry Lime (The Third Man) and Citizen Kane – is the pseudonym that Mateo Blanco (Homar) has taken. Blanco was once one of the world’s leading film directors, but a tragic auto accident robbed him of his sight. He is still a successful screenwriter, living in a Madrid apartment cared for by longtime personal assistant Judit Garcia (Portilla) and her sweet son Diego (Novas). Judit has deeper feelings for Mateo than just being his assistant, incidentally. This is neither here nor there in terms of the plot; it’s just the way it is.

Mateo although middle aged and blind, is still a bit of a playa – he just uses his disability to help get attractive women in the sack. He has evidently always been a ladies’ man. One day, while Judit is out of town on business, Mateo is approached by a young man calling himself Ray X (Ochandiano) who wants Mateo to write a film with a very specific plot. Mateo is intrigued until he realizes who Ray X is – and what he really wants. Diego, who hasn’t a clue, asks Mateo to tell him. Mateo gives him a story, the defining story of his life and of the last movie he ever directed, “Girls and Suitcases.”

It was the early 90s and Mateo was on top of his game. One of his producers, Ernesto Martel (Gomez), a wealthy industrialist arranges to have his mistress Lena (Cruz) granted a screen test. Mateo isn’t expecting much but does it to keep his investor happy. Instead, he is completely entranced by this beautiful woman whom he falls deeply in love with.

Soon, Martel begins to suspect that his mistress is cheating on him and sics his son on them to film everything they do, ostensibly in the mask of a documentary filmmaker capturing the making of the movie. And, if you haven’t figured it out by now, Martel’s son is none other than Ray X. Soon, the tension begins to escalate and Martel begins to show signs that he is willing to do anything to keep his mistress as his own – up to and including murder.

This isn’t typical of an Almodovar movie. For one thing, the story is told much more conventionally than in most of his films. However, his fondness for combining genres – in this case suspense, romance, film noir and even comedy – is very much in evidence here. This is the most Hitchcock-like of Almodovar’s movies; I can certainly see the master of suspense making a movie like that were he alive today, although knowing Hitchcock he’d have cast a blonde (someone like Naomi Watts) in the lead role.

Almodovar always seems to bring out the best in Penelope Cruz and this emerges as another great performance by the Spanish actress. She is certainly a victim in many ways in this movie, but she is also a victimizer, one who wraps men around her small fingers and uses her sexuality to get what she wants. When she finally finds a soulmate, she finds herself in a dilemma of her own making; only she knows what Martel is capable of and she is absolutely terrified.

I also like Homar, a veteran Catalonian actor from Barcelona (and who previously worked with Almodovar on Bad Education) who bears a slight resemblance to Kelsey Grammer here. He has two different roles to play; one the confident director, the other the embittered blind writer. The differences are subtle, but Homar pulls it off nicely.

Almodovar is fond of bright colors, and there are a whole lot of them here – apparently to his mind the Spain of the 1990s looked a lot like the Britain of the 1970s. There are a lot of reds in the movie and I don’t mean commies or retired assassins. I mean the shade of red; it is noticeable in nearly every scene.

People looking for Almodovar here will see glimpses of him but this is perhaps his most mainstream movie ever. People looking for a conventional suspense movie will finds glimpses of one but this is a bit on the art house side. I can say it is compellingly written, with well-drawn characters and an ending that while it doesn’t come from left field, at least is satisfactory enough. I’ve never been Almodovar’s biggest fan, but if you’re like me you might find this movie a bit more palatable than some of his other films which tend to be quirkier than this.

WHY RENT THIS: A very well-made thriller, not to Hitchcock-like standards but certainly in the style thereof. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is very different from Almodovar’s other movies; his fans may not care for it as much.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s sex, drugs and a little bit of rock and roll. There’s also some off-camera spousal abuse.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth collaboration between Cruz and Almodovar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a fabulous feature that simply captures Almodovar directing Cruz and how the two have developed a kind of cinematic shorthand in their working relationship. There is also a short film ostensibly directed by Mateo Blanco.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $31.0M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: 127 Hours

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