Broken Embraces (Spain, 2009)

December 24, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Broken Embraces Poster

Perhaps Almodovar and film noir simply don't mix. This is the second time in three films the acclaimed Spanish director has attempted to apply his unique style to a twisty mystery and, as was the case with Bad Education, it's not a marriage made in color. In fact, Broken Embraces has a fair amount in common with Bad Education - both productions feature films-within-the-film, both are as firmly entrenched in the past as in the present, and both contain their share of melodramatic "reveals." In many ways, Broken Embraces is a better film, at least for the first 90 minutes. The material is compelling, the level of technical proficiency is superior, and everything seems to be building to a satisfying climax. Sadly, however, Almodovar's ability to generate a build-up surpasses his skill in delivering a resolution. The final half-hour of Broken Embraces is littered with facile contrivances and plot turns worthy of a soap opera. It's almost mystifying, and more than a little frustrating, to watch a movie cruising at such a high level suddenly suffer a complete breakdown and lose too much altitude.

Broken Embraces sets up like a jigsaw puzzle, with the resolution to some of the unknowns of the present being found in flashbacks to 1994. The narrative cruises along in both timelines, freely switching back-and-forth. As long as the movie progresses like this, it remains on firm ground. Eventually, however, the 1994 story is (mostly) told and events shift entirely to 2008. At that point, Broken Embraces runs into a number of problems. One of its most interesting characters is no longer around. The dramatic momentum flags. And Almodovar starts pulling white rabbits out of his hat to close loops, some of which didn't need closing. The production ends with an overlong scene-within-a-scene that might have worked had it been shorter. As it is, it seems bizarrely that Almodovar is trying to re-create something he might have done as a director in the early '90s.

The film opens with an evocative scene. A blind writer, whom we later learn goes by the name of Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), has been accompanied home by a comely young woman who has offered to read the paper to him. As they sit across from one another, he asks her to describe herself. What color are her eyes? What color is her hair? What is she wearing? He then asks if he can "look" with his hands. His explorations begin with her hair, move across her face, and end with her breasts. The sequence is effective in its economy as a way of introducing us to Harry: a gentle middle-aged man who seeks pleasure where he can find it without being predatory. Once a filmmaker who used his real name, Mateo Blanco, Harry began hiding behind his pseudonym after the events of 1994. They are related here in flashback and involve his final movie, a comedy called Girls and Suitcases. It starred the proverbial "love of his life," Lena (Penelope Cruz), and was produced by her jealous lover, the rich and powerful Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez).

The other characters in the story include Harry's sometime protégé, Diego (Tamar Novas), who becomes his audience when he decides to unburden himself by relating the entire sordid story of Girls and Suitcases, and his production manager, Judit (Blanca Portillo), who often seems more like a combination mother/nurse/housekeeper/lover than a mere "friend" and former employee. There's also the mysterious Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano), who knows Harry's past and wants to exploit it for reasons that are not immediately apparent.

Broken Embraces offers a tremendous performance from Penelope Cruz, who at times is dressed and made up to look like a young Audrey Hepburn. This is Cruz's fourth outing for Almodovar, and their rapport is obvious. In a far different role from the over-the-top drama queen she essays in Rob Marshall's Nine, Cruz is more subdued here as a trapped woman who comes alive when she finds in her profession and her director things to ignite her passion. Lluis Homar, who previously appeared in Bad Education, is a solid, reliable actor. He is able to hold his own in scenes with Cruz (of which there are many) and dominate those when she is absent.

The chief pleasure in watching Broken Embraces comes through the build-up. As the web is woven ever-tighter, the delicious sense of puzzling out the strands is in evidence. As long as Almodovar is playing in two time frames - asking new questions in 2008 while revealing the answers in 1994 - the film is the perfect fusion of drama and mystery. Unfortunately, once the past has spilled most of its secrets and we're stranded in the present for the final half-hour, Broken Embraces seems... well... broken. Almodovar dispels the illusion by employing a surfeit of coincidences and offering one surprise too many. The editing is also uneven. There's a scene with the blind director facing a camera that is more than a little confusing. (The rushed explanation fails to clarify much.) Then comes the odd finale, which makes one wonder whether Almodovar is consciously attempting to re-create his early work as an exercise in nostalgia. The point of that sequence could be served in about 60 seconds; Almodovar pursues it for five times that length.

As I mentioned in my review of Bad Education, Almodovar films, like those of many internationally respected directors, are judged by different standards. Broken Embraces is not a bad movie. In fact, at times, it's a good movie. But the production, when observed as a whole with the director's name attached, is a disappointment. I don't regret seeing it, but I regret its inconsistencies and the failure of its final act, which diminish its overall enjoyability.

Broken Embraces (Spain, 2009)

Director: Pedro Almodovar
Cast: Penelope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Jose Luis Gomez, Tamar Novas, Blanca Portillo, Ruben Ochandiano
Screenplay: Pedro Almodovar
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Music: Alberto Iglesias
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 2:07
U.S. Release Date: 2009-12-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Violence)
Subtitles: In Spanish with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1