The phrase “an Almodóvar film” virtually conjures up a genre all by itself. Really, is an Almodóvar film anything but an Almodóvar film? Would you be likely to mistake any of the filmmaker’s offerings as ones belonging to anyone else? Doesn’t the phrase immediately tell you that the film will not only look a certain way (and have a lot of red), but that it will have a very specific vibe, that the sense of humor will be at the very least quirky, and that the good guys will be flawed and the bad guys will have their reasons?
That certainly describes his newest film, Broken Embraces — a very worthy close-out for his remarkable output of the last decade. It may not be as complex as Talk to Her (2002), it almost certainly won’t upset as many people as Bad Education (2004), and it isn’t as warm as Volver (2006), but it makes up for all those things in other, very Almodóvarian, ways.
Broken Embraces is certainly not the first of his films to focus on a filmmaker, nor is it the first to incorporate elements from his other films. In the latter sense, Almodóvar seems to be the ultimate justification of the idea that if you were to hook a filmmaker’s entire body of work together, you’d end up more with one very long movie rather than a series of films. This, however, is the first time I can think of where he re-imagines one of his earlier films, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), as a film being made by his main character. But just as Almodóvar both is and isn’t Mateo Blanco/Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), the film within the film, Girls and Suitcases, is and isn’t Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Nor is it simply an in-joke for the fans; Almodóvar reworks it and finds new elements in it that suit his current film.
In essence, Broken Embraces is typical Almodóvar in that it’s a peculiarly heightened soap opera that makes fun of that genre, while still working within its confines. The situations are overheated and often absurd, but the characters retain a humanity that makes us care about them. Here, however, he brings another favored element of his — film noir — to the foreground. The results are a film that is more closely related to the work of Orson Welles than any of his other work. It’s probably not accidental that the filmmaker in Broken Embraces chooses the name Harry Caine — combining the Welles characters Harry Lime from The Third Man (1949) and Charles Foster Kane from Citizen Kane (1941) — as his writing pseudonym. For that matter, Mateo leaving his film to be cut by others reflects Welles’ trip to South America and leaving The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) to the not-so-tender mercies of the studio.
When the film opens, Mateo — now blind — has completely become Harry Caine, making his living by writing screenplays for other filmmakers. The story proper kicks in when a man calling himself Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano) arrives on the scene offering Harry a large sum of money to write the screenplay for a film that will “erase all memory” of the recently deceased Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). Harry turns him down flat, calling the project too personal. A little research confirms his suspicion that Ray X is in reality Ernesto Martel Jr. — a man, who, like Martel himself, Martel knew all too well 14 years ago. It is that story — the story of falling in love with Martel’s mistress, Lena (Penelope Cruz), the making of Girls and Suitcases, of Martel’s bid for revenge, and Lena and Mateo’s attempt to run away — that makes up the bulk of the film.
Since a good deal of the delight in any Almodóvar film lies in the unraveling of his frequently convoluted storyline, I won’t go into detail concerning how any of this plays out. However, I will suggest paying particular attention to the smaller details in the film — not just to catch the allusions to other films, but to better understand the motivations of all the characters and to see all the fun Almodóvar has with the conventions of film noir. Yet these conventions are the very things he will subvert with the ending of his film, which, among other things, becomes a salute to the making of movies — and to the importance of getting them right despite the odds. In this regard, at least, it’s just possible that Broken Embraces is Almodóvar’s most purely personal film yet. Rated R for sexual content, language and some drug material.