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Broken Embraces

August 24, 2010

Broken Embraces (2009)
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Actors: Lluis Homar, Penelope Cruz, Blanca Portillo

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Synopsis: A blind writer (Lluis Homar) recounts the traumatic incidents that culminated in his blindness many years’ previous.

Review: Pedro Almodóvar’s latest cinematic offering, Broken Embraces, locates him very much on familiar ground, fashioning a heightened drama from within the safe encompasses of his preferred melodrama/noir genre. Though not intended as a criticism per se (after all, one of the pleasures of auteur theory is in seeking out the stock elements of a filmmaker’s work), Broken Embraces is an example where those components feel laboured and less successfully executed than in previous masterpieces from Almodóvar.

Plot-wise, Broken Embraces shares a lot in common with Almodóvar’s recent Bad Education (2004). Both are rare instances in the Almodóvarian oeuvre where the lead protagonist is male, and both feature similar structural devices where an early conflict in the narrative forces the protagonist to recount an incident or period from their past history to inform that present-day dilemma. In Bad Education, filmmaker Enrique receives a surprise visit from an actor claiming to be his old school friend, Ignacio, so Enrique revisits his past both in fact (by remembering what happened at school) and in fiction (creating a film of that time in his life) to help unpick the secret surrounding Ignacio. Similarly, Broken Embraces features a blind ex-film director who is stalked by one of his former cameramen, and this leads him into recounting the story of how the making of a past film and the affair he had with its lead actress, caused him to lose his eyesight.

Merely relating the plots of these two thrillers underlines their structural complexity, and emphasises how Almodóvar seeks through dazzling shifts in chronology (between past and present), and in relativity (between fact and fiction) to present paeans to the enduring sustenance of his filmmaker/artist heroes. Unfortunately, where that dictum worked a treat in Bad Education, in Broken Embraces it merely seems like fodder for an array of inane postmodern conceits. Take for example a theatrically ingenious scene where Penélope Cruz’s character fields a call from a man where she is functioning as a high-class call-girl and he a paying client, before immediately when the conversation ends, Cruz takes a call from her office manager (who happens to be the very same man) discussing her professional secretarial duties. Despite being formally interesting, and an ironic muddying of the waters between one’s personal and professional personas, it is a device utterly inured to itself, neither furthering the plot nor echoing thematically with other aspects of the film.

Even as a melodrama, a genre that Almodóvar mastered in All About My Mother (1999), Broken Embraces is inconsistent. Where as the whole fabric of All About My Mother was smothered in references, both literal and subliminal, to other works championing women such as All About Eve (1950) and the Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire”, in Broken Embraces the conscious referencing of Vertigo through colour scheme and the femme fatale changing her appearance, is undermotivated. This is because Almodóvar fails to locate any sense of empathy for his protagonist, unlike with Cecilia Roth in All About My Mother or Fele Martinez in Bad Education. It’s even debatable just who Broken Embraces‘ protagonist actually is, because Lluis Homar’s blind filmmaker and Penélope Cruz’s errant mistress receive a similar amount of plot credence, yet when Homar gropes at a superimposed image of himself and Cruz in an embrace at the moment of her death, the intended emotional resonance simply doesn’t transmit.

The flashback, a key common structural tool in Almodóvar’s body of work, is another underused constituent of Broken Embraces. Setting the action in the present, and using fifteen years previous (i.e. 1994) as the locus for the dramatic backstory, means that the narrative accrues no extra measure beyond its diegetic function, where as Almodóvar has often used the past as a means to slyly expose the hypocrisy of Franco-era conservatism. In particular, Almodóvar has commonly liked to deconstruct the contemporary perversions or transgressions of his characters by necessarily relating it to some act of authoritarian or patriarchal cruelty of yesteryear. That is why Bad Education is much more poignant than Broken Embraces. By making that film’s ‘present day’ 1980, and having the childhood reminiscences date back to the repressive Fifties and Sixties, Almodóvar is able to say something about the scandalous levels of brutality and child-abuse in the Catholic schools of that era, and how it had a tragic effect on the character of Ignacio (whose fate is the film’s dramatic raison d’être).

Aesthetically in Broken Embraces, Almodóvar, always a director more interested in diegesis than editing or cinematography, hardly reaches beyond his penchant of previously mentioned cine-homages to Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk, with exaggerated colour schemes in his mise en scene and the use of a Herrmann-esque musical score.

This feeds into the underlying crux of Broken Embraces which is whether one can possibly engage with the film on its own terms, or if it must necessarily be assimilated through the auspice of Almodóvar’s directorial back-catalogue. This dialectic was provocatively addressed by Peter Matthews in his September 2006 Sight & Sound review of Volver (2006), when he confessed his irritation for the one-dimensionality and sameness of Almodóvar’s recent output. In it, Matthews attacked Almodóvar’s simplified pedestalisation of women, and the almost ‘total absence of conflict’ in Volver’s narrative. Matthews’ point about idealised femininity is contentious, but that idealisation does certainly blight Broken Embraces in that the film should really be about Lluis Homar’s blind and emotionally-scarred protagonist, yet Penélope Cruz is inanely fetishised even though from a dramatic perspective, her character is technically one large plot mechanism. This misappropriation of emphasis makes for a surprisingly hollow emotional core to Broken Embraces, and perhaps if Almodóvar had noted Matthews’ advocacy for him being a significantly more interesting essayist on masculinity, we might have had a more complex and engaging film. (November 2009)

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