Thanks to an unnecessary framing device, Broken Embraces is essentially two movies: one, the sort of brightly colored melodrama we've come to expect from Pedro Almodóvar; the other, a neo-homage to the Los Angeles noir. The film toggles between the telenovelic and the quasi-Lynchian; would that Almodóvar had dedicated himself solely to the latter. Lluís Homar, who could easily win a Kelsey Grammer lookalike contest, stars as a blind screenwriter and former film director; he recounts the tale of his tragico-torrid affair, 16 years earlier, with Lena (Penélope Cruz, magnificent as ever), a call girl turned magnate's moll turned actress when her elderly sugar daddy (José Luis Gómez), Ernesto Martel, turns movie-producer for her. These flashbacks, captivatingly foreboding, take far too long to emerge from the inert and dramatically muddled present-day scenes and are eventually cut way too short; they also evoke a wide range of other films.
Because Broken Embraces, above all, is Almodóvar's movie about movies—tellingly, it opens with shots of an actress seen through a viewfinder—and it's bursting with references. As with the recent Friday the 13th reboot (yeah, really), a lot of the fun is in jotting down all the allusions: broadly, in its atmosphere, the entire film is steeped in the sunny mystery and hard-boiled romance of films like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard (the walls of one of the rooms in Gomez's mansion are covered in paintings of guns!); the action is simply moved from California to Madrid—not much of a stretch, given the Golden State's abundance of Spanish-style architecture. More specifically: Gómez dresses like Bogart in Casablanca; Cruz, trying on pearls, looks like Elizabeth Taylor doing Cleopatra. (Her call girl name is "Severine," a call-out to Belle de jour.) Cruz uses a tripod as a weapon, recalling Peeping Tom; in one scene, she is forced to try on a series of wigs, making her resemble Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and other actresses; it seems straight out of Vertigo, as does the character, Martel fils (Rubén Ochandiano), who trails her with a camera.
But it's here that Broken Embraces gets to elucidate its own ideas about movies, too, though they aren't particularly revolutionary: the camera is like a weapon, watching is a form of aggression, and so on; the power of cinema as a force for good emerges, as well, particularly in a poignant shot, late in the film, of a blind man rubbing a TV screen on which glows the image of his dearly departed beloved. Dwelling on such issues of mediation recall, strangely, Atom Egoyan, as does the plot's dancing on the fine line between melodrama and pretension. In fact, Broken Embraces bears startling similarities to Egoyan's recent Adoration, complete with last act twists and absurd revelations (as well as a vague resemblance between this film's Tamar Novas and that film's Devon Bostick).
In that last act, Almodóvar expounds the movie's moral: "Films have to be finished, even if you do it"—wait for it—"blindly." That seems dubious, particularly as Broken Embraces feels half-realized, the hasty production of an unpolished draft. In the future, Pedro, it's OK if you take more time.