Blind writer Harry Caine (Lluís Homar) used to be sighted filmmaker Mateo Blanco until a car smash robbed him of sight and girlfriend Lena (Penélope Cruz). Diego (Tamar Novas), the son of his agent, helps Harry work, prompting him to think over the past a
Pedro Almodóvar continues to flirt with Hitchcockian high-style melodrama, even as he defaults to kooky, primary-coloured comedy. In Broken Embraces, the last act is built around re-editing the flop film (deliberately botched by an evil producer) which ended the hero’s directorial career to discover the doppelgänger of Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, Almodóvar’s own breakthrough. It’s a complicated story, taking place in two time periods, told with a casual confidence which sweeps through an extended running time and plot feints that peter out like ill-tended desert tracks.
Protagonist Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar) has let go of his original identity as a film director to become his own alter ego. Selective flashbacks show how Lena (Penélope Cruz), failed actress and sometime call girl, was ensnared by crooked financier Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gomez) before being cast in Mateo’s last film. At some point, the modern story and the set-up intersect, and we shift back to the triangle of Mateo, Lena and Ernesto. While the characters try to make a film farce, they live a Hollywood melodrama as the paranoid Ernesto (in the ‘Claude Rains’ role) becomes increasingly malicious. Fetishist concern with Cruz’s high heels sets her up for a nasty fall in Ernesto’s gloomy mansion, and then a trip to the lunar-seeming landscape of Lanzarote, where the lovers are stalked by Ernesto’s gay videographer son.
In the last act, long-standing mysteries are solved and a blind man sets out to re-edit the film that ended his career. It’s beside the point to argue that if an alternative masterpiece version of Ishtar surfaced, it still wouldn’t overcome the film’s initial bad reception since this is a teasing fantasy about cinema, romance, possibility, comedy, tragedy and charm. Cruz seesaws between the styles of Audrey Hepburn and Tippi Hedren, but has gained a peppery screen personality of her own which makes her more than just an old movie ghost, while Homar — in a role which contrasts vividly with his recent turn in Fermat’s Room — is restrained, complicated and potentially a breakout character actor superstar.
Gorgeous and seductive, if pitched at Almodóvar fans and perhaps a touch long. Those drawn by Cruzs divadom will wonder why it takes so long to get to her though she is wholly dazzling when it does.