Along with Elia Suleiman’s “The Time That Remains and Alejandro Amenábar’s “Agora, the two other highlights of this week’s European Film Panorama, which kicks off on Wednesday, are Pedro Almodóvar’s latest picture “Broken Embraces and Jacques Audiard’s “Un prophète, winner of Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix award. Of the two, Audiard’s fifth feature is the obvious superior work and the must-see film of the week-long fest along with “The Time That Remains.
The Cannes Film Festival was abuzz with anticipation last May when Almodóvar’s follow-up to the Oscar nominated “Volver (2006) premiered. Most reviews were positive, but not ecstatic. Like most film aficionados, I’m a major fan of Almodóvar and my expectations for his fourth collaboration with Penélope Cruz were very high. I’ve seen the film a couple of times now, and my opinion of it remains unchanged. “Broken Embraces is a minor Almodóvar, one of the most reserved productions of his career. I wasn’t as disappointed though as much as I was confused by the whole thing.
There’s a lot to admire in here, from Cruz’s ravaging performance and the spellbindingly colorful sets to Almodóvar’s quintessential chic melancholy. “Broken Embraces is a big love letter to the movies, covering several genres, the most dominant of which are melodrama and noir. And herein lies the fundamental problem of the film. Almodóvar’s 17th feature strides into way too many directions until it loses focus and purpose. The multitude of film references ingrained in the story’s unkempt blueprint evolve from a loving tribute to the movies that shaped Almodóvar’s life to a heavy saddle that brings the film down.
Lluís Homar (“Bad Education ) plays Harry Caine, a blind scriptwriter who lost sight 14 years ago in a car crash. A mysterious figure from Caine’s past reenters his life, forcing him to confront his past and unravel the unusual circumstances surrounding the accident. Almodóvar quickly reveals that before the accident, Caine was a talented director named Mateo Blanco who was having an affair with his leading actress, Lena (Cruz), who also happened to be the mistress of old business tycoon and the film’s producer Ernesto Martel (a superb José Luis Gómez). As in any standard melodrama, a desperate Ernesto eventually finds out and plots to wreak havoc upon the two.
Almodóvar is a master of melodrama, a genre that became synonymous with his mature period that started with 1999’s “All About My Mother. His penchant to mix fiery emotions with touches of surrealism produced the best films of his career that succeeded in trampling the snags of the genre.
In here, Almodóvar, for the first time in so long, seems lost. “Broken Embraces is an exceedingly predictable melodrama devoid of high emotions; a film noir that’s not noirish enough. The end-result is a work somewhat self-indulgent and inert, undecided about what exactly it wants to achieve.
The biggest mistake of “Broken Embraces is the film-within-a-film-within-a-film structure that further burdens the story. The film Mateo is shooting, a sex comedy entitled “Girls and Suitcases is modeled after Almodóvar’s 1988’s classic “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a major erroneous choice that neither fits the somber mood of the story nor its plot. Not only does it distract from the central plot, it undermines the seriousness of the story.
As I mentioned, the film is kaleidoscope of film references, from the Roberto Rossellini’s “Voyage to Italy and Jacques Tourneur’s noir classic “Out of the Past to Hitchcock’s obsession with his blonde actresses and Jeanne Moreau’s voice. As always, the most apparent inspiration for Almodóvar is the great Douglas Sirk whose rich color patterns delineates the visual texture of the film. And I must admit, every single frame of the film looks gorgeous. There’s not much left to be said about Cruz. With Almodóvar, Cruz has grown into one of the screen legends he has long idolized. No words can describe how ravishing Cruz looks is in this film. Her anguish, warmth and yearnings represent the real emotional pull of the film.
When cinema was conceived at the end of the 18th century, an observer earnestly declared that the new invention has trounced death. “Broken Embraces is, in essence, about the immortality of film and the lives it safeguards from time. Each scene works separately from the other, encapsulating contrasting moods and emotions. The most memorable scene of the film for me sees Lena and Mateo eloping to a seaside city, accompanied by Cat Power’s haunting cover of Michael Hurley’s “Werewolf in the soundtrack. Beautiful, achingly sad and liberating, the scene is a perfect blend of mood and setting, existing on an entirely different plane from the exasperating last sequence.
On their own, such scenes work brilliantly. Too bad there isn’t a strong narrative glue to hold them together.
“Broken Embraces is screened on Wednesday, December 16 at 3.30 pm. Check the Monday edition of Daily News Egypt for the “Un prophète review.