Greatness Unbroken

Talking Movies: March 2010 – If you’re the kind of moviegoer who wishes you’d lived back when X was making movies (where X stands for your favorite great director), if like me you wish you had been there for the fresh projections of Godfather I rather than opening weekend of Godfather III–even if you’re simply content to see Penélope Cruz without her shirt on–go see Broken Embraces, the newish Pedro Almodóvar movie, which in more populous civilizations I would have reviewed four months ago.

broken embracesLos Abrazos Rotos, as it’s more euphoniously named in the original Spanish, which plays at the Bijou from March 5th through the 11th, is yet another work from the golden age of Almodóvar, our auteur on par with the likes of Fellini. Every single shot sings of his unique style: the pop-art crispness of colors, the clarity and geometry of Mediterranean sun, the explorations of a lingering fascist mentality, the sympathetic misfits, the melodrama, the Platonic form of beauty that is Penélope Cruz. Broken Embraces is not, I will say, his greatest movie; its emotions don’t run as deep as All About My Mother or Volver. It may, however, be his most complex movie. I don’t mean that it’s hard to follow, just that every theme and every shot are deeply interwoven into the whole.

The movie shuttles back and forth, with the effortlessness of memory, from now to the early 1990s. Narrated by “Harry Caine” (Lluis Homar), the pseudonym of Mateo Blanco, a movie director back then and a screenwriter now, the story revolves around his tragic love affair with Lena (Cruz), who is entangled with a millionaire financier and movie producer by the name of Ernesto Martel. Essentially, we have the muse, the artist and the money–and the money ruins everything. But this melodrama is given life by all the strange rhyming subplots and lovely echoing imagery.

Broken Embraces is a movie literally about the making of movies: Lena gets a part in Mateo’s comedy Women and Suitcases (a thinly veiled version of Almodóvar’s own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown); their romance takes place between the scenes; but even what’s going on between the scenes is being shot by Martel’s obsessive gay son, who’s ostensibly making a documentary about the making of the movie, but is secretly doing detective work for his father. At the same time, the movie is a loving homage to any number of master movies. A name like Harry Caine reflects Orson Welles, whose most famous roles were Harry Lime and Citizen Kane, and also Michael Caine who played Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File. There are references, explicit or implicit, to Louis Malle, Roberto Rossellini, Michael Powell and probably countless others. But by far the film at the center of the film is Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Broken Embraces is Vertigo turned inside-out. In Vertigo, Scotty falls in love with a woman who, unbeknownst to him, is doing an act to ensnare him. After her staged death, he finds her again and now becomes her “director,” making her up to try to look like the woman he lost. In Broken Embraces, Mateo begins as a real-life director who falls in love with a woman who really is an actress in his movie. After he loses her he can no longer direct–he loses his sight literally and emotionally. There’s even a Midge character, Judit (Blanca Portillo), with a subplot that is also a variation on a theme by Hitchcock.

The world-is-a-stage theme is easy to overdo in the postmodern age. We know, we know: Identity is a performance, there’s nothing outside the text, the medium is the message–it has been so now for 50 years. But Almodóvar handles the life-is-a-movie metaphor so deftly we’re left groping for a vocabulary to catch up to his images. When Mateo first sees Lena, she turns in classic slow-motion and looks right at us. Her beauty is overwhelming to us viewers, as it is to Mateo, who’s narrating the scene in retrospect. Just moments later, she’s auditioning for a role in his new movie in a variety of costumes, including one that turns Penélope Cruz, mirabile dictu, into the spitting image of Audrey Hepburn. Suddenly we realize that Mateo is directing her how to turn and look at him. Reality is somewhere bouncing between the mirrors.

Broken Embraces keeps echoing for days in the mind, but don’t deny yourself the experience of seeing it on the (semi-) big screen at the Bijou. Why deny yourself the full experience of what makes Almodóvar truly great: his uncanny ability with red, orange and yellow? Did I mention that you get to see Penélope Cruz naked?

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