Broken Embraces, directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Broken Embraces, directed by Pedro Almodóvar

It’s more introspective than earlier crowd-pleasing extravanganzas, but Tom Jennings finds abundant subversive intelligence, wit, and pleasure in Almodóvar’s new film.

That Obscure Abject of Desire. Film review – Tom Jennings
Pedro Almodóvar’s latest masterwork continues his trajectory since All About My Mother (1999) whereby the slings and arrows of outrageous behaviour are somewhat muted compared to earlier camp provocations, now allowing sober reflection on the vagaries of desire frustrated, sidetracked and colonised by domination. Gathering together previously tested devices like flashbacks, a film within a film, and the unreliable voiceover, Broken Embraces’ characters are also haunted and daunted by past misfortunes in an intransigent world amid family complexity and social conflict. But unlike Talk To Her (2002), Bad Education (2004) or Volver (reviewed in Freedom, 4th November 2006), no satisfying denouement provides sentimental catharsis to sweeten cod-psychoanalytic pastiche. Instead the the confusions and convolutions of the story are fashioned into something of a monograph on the writer-director’s own practice – a “love letter to cinema” musing upon the creative processes of art imitating life (or vice versa), exploiting a characteristically outlandish narrative vehicle which becomes perfectly convincing once enchantment suspends disbelief.
So an ageing sightless screenwriting hack calling himself ‘Harry Caine’ (Lluis Gomar) won’t talk about past tragedies to his longstanding agent Judit Garcia (Blanca Portillo) or her son Diego (Tamar Novas), to the extent of not even answering to his real name – Mateo Blanco, once an up-and-coming film-maker. The death of famous tycoon Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) unnerves him, however, and his story is gradually revealed through flashbacks to fourteen years ago when Magdalena Rivero (Penélope Cruz) – Martel’s secretary and part-time prostitute – becomes her boss’s mistress when he takes care of her dying father. These roles don’t satisfy Lena’s aspirations, though, and she wangles an audition to star in Mateo’s screwball comedy, Girls and Suitcases, whereupon they fall in love. Martel bankrolls the production to keep control of Lena but Mateo flees with her to Lanzarote, leaving the film unfinished. Martel wrecks it via deliberately atrocious editing, hoping to flush them out, but their car crashes – blinding him and killing her – en route to a disastrous première which buries the picture and his career. Back in the present, various long-suppressed revelations emerge, bringing Mateo, Judit and Diego closer and allowing them to complete the film properly from the newly-unearthed original rushes.
Almodóvar’s meticulous attention to visual detail produces painterly tableaux which prompt almost visceral, emotional intensity to drive engagement with the interlocking progression of image and narrative – with nuanced performances, as always, beautifully soundtracked and shot. The achievement here is even more impressive given that the guiding metaphor is cinema’s capacity to simulate the manner in which significant events and experiences coalesce in helping shape our fate – using as raw material signature flourishes and iconic themes made famous by the most skilful, successful, highly-regarded and closely-studied exponents of popular film styles over the decades. So the most audacious conceit in the film was the decision to namecheck his own first international hit, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), as Mateo’s comic meta-film – now resituated within a reflection on personal, cultural and political history which has been widely, if foolishly, interpreted as a self-indulgent, backward-looking failure of imagination.
Whereas Almodóvar refuses nostalgia – “We have to find solutions for the daily struggles we find now” – citing the socialist government’s 2007 Law of Historical Memory officially sanctioning the acknowledgement of Spanish Civil War atrocities and subsequent decades of fascist brutality (albeit yielding little tangible action). Mateo’s self-reinventions then parallel the post-Franco flowering of Spanish culture failing to face the past, offering not so much redemption as pragmatic reintegration to move on and not repeat mistakes – itself hugely uncertain given the country’s recent electoral oscillations between equally unappetising neoliberal modernisation and conservative reaction. Similarly, this subtle, mature film witholds simplistic payoffs – elements of tragedy, thriller, and farce simultaneously signalling victory over and victimhood to circumstance. Meanwhile, advancing beyond adolescent shock-tactics of gratuitous transgression allows the characters’ perversity to measure well against conventional niceties – the concrete effects of conduct mattering more than any inherent moral status.
Thus Martel’s poisonous influence and extensive government-corporate connections condense the Franco era and present trends, further specifying eternal film industry tussles for creative control. Meanwhile unabashed homages to Hollywood genres from the 1930s-60s – Douglas Sirk melodramas, Orson Welles epics, Hitchcock, film noir, romantic comedies – promiscuously cross-fertilise rather than being domesticated into fragmented consumables of pompous or mindless fluff. Even reverential references to European art cinema resound, as the sublime Cruz radiates the glamour, innocence, sensuality, and/or femme fatalism of the entire screen goddess canon. Of several Luis Bunuel borrowings, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) details an alpha male’s utter incomprehension of his beloved, with sinister and banal consequences all round, just as here Lena and Martel’s love-hate entangling casts such baleful shadows. Acknowledging complicity and collusion in domination without downplaying the oppressor’s monstrosity, Almodóvar flays bourgeois respectability like Bunuel and Eastern European surrealist cinema, Cronenberg and Lynch – projecting the chaotic terrors and appetites of the unconscious onto fleshly, psychic, and social surfaces, but adding contemporary pop-cultural vulgarities and obscenities to surrealism’s palette.
Consciously registering so many film-buff in-jokes admittedly risks seriously distracting viewers, yet Almodóvar’s consummate translation of the rich texture of experience into dense patchworks of cinematic allusion comprehensively overflows the containment of this narrative, celebrating Hollywood’s captivating spectacles while surreptitiously highlighting their profound dishonesty. Ironically, most critics misjudged Broken Embraces as terminally flawed – lacking resolution, clarity or attenuation of tone, or an easily-taglined ‘message’. But this impurity mirrors life’s messiness. Whereas Maria Delgado applauded “his most political film to date” as “a tale of the body in decay, of alternative families tested in adverse times, of parenthood at both domestic and institutional levels, and of the relationship between individual and institutional forms of trauma and mourning”.* Few works of art ever successfully enmesh so many deeply poignant themes so intimately – let alone while consistently championing underdogs and, even better, sustaining us with visions of their outlaw desire confounding power.
* in ‘Sensory Perception’, Sight & Sound, September 2009, pp.40-44.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 70, No. 21, November 2009.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:
www.variant.org.uk
www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk