Directed by Pedro Almodovar
Admittedly, all Pedro Almodovar's films are about the movies, particularly the lush melodramas rolled out by Hollywood studios in the 1940s and 50s, but none has tipped its hat to those forbears more fondly and frequently than Broken Embraces. From the opening shot of Penolope Cruz speaking with an off-screen director, to the finale in which all the injustices of the preceding narrative are redeemed in an editing booth, this is both a love letter to cinema and a virtuoso demonstration of the art form's power. And through all the in-jokes, film history references and generic tropes, it's also compelling and endlessly rewarding on its own terms.
Embraces follows a typically Almodovarian love affair between a director (Lluis Homar) and his star (Cruz), who also happens to be the producer's (Jose Luis Gomez) mistress, and is constantly followed by her gay, camera-toting pseudo son-in-law (Ruben Ochandiano). We access this slightly ridiculous yet completely engrossing mid-90s romance via flashback from a present in which the director is blind, has changed his name and become a screenwriter whose literary agent (Blanca Portillo), unbeknownst to him, is the mother of his only son (Tamar Novas). The jumps in time are accompanied by shifts in tone, between a sumptuous gothic look and feel to the backstage love triangle and a crisp, brightly colored contemporary section that recalls late-60s Godard. Every character in the ensemble has his or her moment—even Ochandiano as the outed Peeping Tom reference—but Homar is especially impressive, playing an Almodovar proxy robbed of his most vital sense, sight. Cruz is spectacular as ever—playing a similarly headstrong though slightly less savvy and balanced character than she did in Volver—but her fate is quite clear long before she tries on a Marilyn Monroe wig that makes the foreboding sense of disaster impossible to miss.
The cast and crew, like the narrative, seem patched together from previous Almodovar films, though the result never falls into indulgent or artless pastiche. The complex system of allusion and homage doesn't impede the swift progression of the richly textured and perfectly acted story. Cruz is alternately Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight and Rita Hayworth in Gilda, but between playing the abused wife and the dangerously beautiful star she wields a sexual and emotional agency that's practically masculine. Homar's performance as a man trapped in a scenario of his own making features shades of William Holden in Sunset Blvd., though his immense loss ultimately enables his salvation. Almodovar picks up these innumerable strands from film history and manages to weave them into something delightfully new and warm—and fun for trivia-obsessed movie nerds. Embraces is an Almodovar film first, and a movie about the movies second, but it's one of the best in both categories.
Opens November 20
This year's NYFF closes up shop with, as they say, "minor Almodóvar".
Oct 9, 2009