Following on from his well received Volver, Pedro Almodovar once again teams up with his muse Penelope Cruz (this being her fourth project with the notable director) for his latest, Broken Embraces.
Obviously intent on developing his style somewhat, Almodovar removes himself from the generally female centric tales he is known for and injects elements of noir and the element of flashbacks to tell the story.
Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), a former dirctor but continual screenwriter now answers to Harry Caine, secluding himself in his apartment after losing his eyesight in a car accident. Mateo’s life takes an interesting turn when the producer of his last directorial feature “Girls and Suitcases” , Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez) dies after several years in prison. Ernesto’s son, Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano) soon appears asking Mateo to write a script for him to get revenge against his father and his controlling ways in the past, making his former production manager Judit (Blanca Portillo) extremely nervous. A flashback to the early 90s follows, where we see Martel become involved with his secretary Lena (Cruz) and her affair with Mateo after being cast in “Girls and Suitcases”. Fearing the worst, Martel asks his son to direct a documentary on the making of the film, so that he can better watch what is happening, obsession and love intermingling fully.
Given the complexity of the script, the flashback is a difficult taskmaster, one with which Almodovar never truly subdues. In All About My Mother, he also used the past as the central drive for the protagonist but never employed flashbacks, instead dealing with its implications on the present and future and sadly, when comparing the two, his earlier work comes out the better. Nothing seems to progress naturally, instead being forced and goaded into moving forward, worse, Cruz’s Lena never develops significantly enough to garner significant sympathy from the audience and we never understand her fully.
Although the director is intent on leaving his female driven narratives behind and focus on the men within the story, in comparison to his earlier work Talk To Her which did the same, we can’t involve ourselves in their lives as much as there. The documentary style shooting and Martel’s viewing of it illustrates his obsessive nature and love for Lena but nothing more, when the ultimate revelation is delivered, he quickly descends into a one-dimensional and then completely unseen character of unwanted irritation. When applied to Mateo and Lena, the filming style highlights either their sexual side or what is considered a moment of habit.
Judit, in some ways seeming the female equivalent of Martel in that she herself has an obsessive love that cannot be returned, hers for Mateo. However with such little time given to her character, the actions she took in the early 90s and still punishes herself for, appear a mere extension of the masochistic behaviour she exhibits in loving a man that will never love her back.
Considering its running time of just over two hours, Broken Embraces says and does almost nothing, never developing its characters enough to make up for the sluggish pace and vacant writing but considering Mateo’s claim that “films have to be finished, even if you do it blindly”, one can understand how this picture came about.