If BROKEN EMBRACES weren't by Almodovar, would it still be as highly praised by critics? I have great respect for Almodovar - I loved his crazy, transgressive early comedies and melodramas - TIE ME UP, TIE ME DOWN; WOMEN ON THE EDGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, and respected inestimably his more recent, mature, dramas - BAD EDUCATION, VOLVER. To my mind, ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER and TALK TO HER are masterpieces. By contrast, BROKEN EMBRACES was unengaging, and sometimes, unforgivably, dull.
To be sure, BROKEN EMBRACES is as technically accomplished and well-acted as anything that Almodovar has ever done. And it contains all those classic Almodovar thematic concerns and audacious tricks. Within five minutes of opening, a blind screen-writer called Harry Caine (Lluis Homar) has picked up a pretty young girl and joyously fucked her on his couch. It's classic Almodovar - with a cheeky shot of a foot over a sofa replacing the typical Hollywood soft focus sex scene. Ten minutes later your into another classic Almodovar scene, as people come and go from Caine's flat, ringing the doorbell, like a British theatrical farce. Chief among them is Caine's production manager, Judit (Blanca Portillo), from the time when he was a sighted directer called Mateo Blanco. Evidently, she still carries a torch for him. Thirty minutes in and we get our mandatory Almodovar drugs scene, as Judit's son Diego (Tamar Novas) OD's. There's also the standard vengeful, creepy homosexual, in the shape of Ruben Ochandiano's Ray X.
But what does all this speak to? Certainly, there's no real reason to spend time with an OD'ing Diego. It's all a framing device for the heart of the story, which takes place in 1992 and is told in flashback by Mateo/Harry to Diego. Back then, Mateo had an affair with Lena, the leading lady in a movie rather similar to WOMEN ON THE EDGE. She (Penelope Cruz) was a failed actress, prostitute, and mistress of a rich, old industrialist called Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). The story is about how the jealousy of Martel is abetted by his voyeuristic son and Judit, with tragic consequences.
That's it. I was amazed by how, well, THIN, the story really was. And how unengaged I was by it. Despite some energetic sex scenes, there is precious little sexual tension between Penelope Cruz' character and either of her lovers, and despite the fact that she was evidently a vulnerable and wronged women, for some reason I didn't feel any sympathy with her. The only character that really worked for me on a raw, gut level, was Blanca Portillo's jealous ex-lover Judit - the only really stand-out performance.
To be sure, Almodovar weaves a lot of intellectually interesting material around the hollow centre of the film. And for hardened cineastes this may be enough to sustain interest. The allusions to his own back catalogue, as well as other Hollywood and European classics and clever. The examination of double identity - Mateo Blanco/Harry Caine - Lena/Severine - the movie-within the movie - the taped tristes/the protagonist dubbing it - are all slippery, clever, and daring.
But as much as I appreciated all this on an intellectual level, my over-riding impression was still of a film that was below par for Almodovar, if not still well above the standard of your typical Hollywood fare.
BROKEN EMBRACES played Cannes 2009 and opened earlier this year in Spain, Belgium, France, Israel, Russia, Germany and Austria. It is currently on release in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands and opens next weekend in the UK. It is released in September in the Czech Republic, Norway, Croatia, Portugal, Brazil, Hungary and the Ukraine. It is released in October in Argentina, Italy,, Greece, Estonia and Mexico. It is released in the US in late November and in Australia in December.