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Los abrazos rotos/Broken Embraces (June 2009)

Lava Lovers and Celluloid Cocoons


Broken Embraces, Almodóvar's seventeenth feature, turns around every filmmaker's nightmare: the disastrous premiere of a film that has been stolen from its creator and re-cut by the producer. And you could be forgiven for thinking that this plot point reveals more than a little performance anxiety on the part of Pedro himself. After all, it would be difficult for any director to top Volver (2006), his previous prizewinning film. Feted at home and abroad, Volver showcased a reassuringly familiar Almodóvarian universe, a world of women in which the threats of death, disease, and sexual abuse dissolved into a tearful mist of sisterly kisses and motherly hugs.

     As its title suggests, Broken Embraces, like Bad Education (2004) before it, is made of harder, and more complex, stuff. There are two places and two periods. In Madrid in 2008, a blind screenwriter (Harry Caine played by Lluís Homar, an amorous priest in Bad Education) lives and loves in darkness. Back in 1994 Harry, then a sighted filmmaker called Mateo Blanco, flees from the capital to the distant island of Lanzarote with his leading lady Lena (Penélope Cruz). They have been shooting a comedy called "Girls and Suitcases" (it sounds better in the Spanish), whose producer is Lena's wealthy, obsessive lover Ernesto Martel (veteran José Luis Gómez). The cast is completed by the steely Blanca Portillo (the cancer-stricken neighbour in Volver) as Judit, Mateo's head of production, and handsome Tamar Novas, the new "chico Almodóvar" and would-be heir to Banderas' crown, as Judit's young son, Diego.

     Back in the real world, Madrid in March 2009 is wall-to-wall Pedro. The filmmaker and his muse Penélope (fresh from her Oscar win for Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona, a first for a Spanish actress) are all over the television schedule and the glossy magazines, lavishing praise on each other. The Warholesque poster for the film, all clashing red, green, and purple, is on every bus shelter. And in a new gambit, Almodóvar has made a spin-off short, screened on TV and posted on the web, that is derived from Broken Embraces's film within the film: "The Cannibal Councillor" stars Carmen Machi (the best known comic actress on Spanish TV) as a foulmouthed conservative politician with a most unusual sexual fetish. Almodóvar's other stars are equally visible on the cultural scene. Homar has just impersonated the current King of Spain in a top rated miniseries, while Portillo (another respected thespian) is playing the title role in a much-praised Hamlet at Madrid's ominously named Slaughterhouse theatre.

     Unsurprisingly perhaps, the publicity blitz has produced something of a backlash. The main critic of El País, the best selling and most respected newspaper (frequently cited by Pedro in his films), wrote that in spite of the film's straining for effect, the only sensation produced in him by its all too familiar style and story was tedium.

The truth is that although there is ammunition for Pedro's detractors in Broken Embraces, there remains much more for his faithful fans to enjoy and to recognize from previous films. In her fourth outing with Almodóvar, Cruz (now so ubiquitous as to be cited in the Spanish press via the single syllable "Pe") emerges here as a bona fide old-school movie star, whether newly disguised in a Warhol-white wig, seductively dripping with gold chains, or regally robed in red velvet, with matching (and perilously high) heels. Her tortured feet, shown in merciless close-up, also point up a new and touching vulnerability.

The typically lush art design and soundtrack, by long time collaborators Antxón Gómez and Alberto Iglesias, respectively, are pitch perfect, as are the credits and poster by Almodóvar's favoured graphic designer, Juan Gatti. Conversely, the presence of a new cinematographer in Rodrigo Prieto (the Mexican still perhaps best-known for his dazzling work on the kinetic Amores Perros) fails to register in Almodóvar's now stately signature style, although some conversation sequences here are shot fluidly with pans and racking focus rather than classic shot/reverse shot.

     Most importantly, Broken Embraces reveals Almodóvar's nostalgia for his own back catalogue. "Girls and Suitcases", the film within the film, is a dead ringer for his classic farce and break through international hit Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), even boasting brief cameos from such past icons as doddery Chus Lampreave and Cubist beauty Rossy de Palma. And the central tragic plot of Broken Embraces, a mix of film noir and melodrama, spirals off into farcical dead ends that remain undeveloped, yet feel typically Almodóvarian: a vampire blood donor, a lip-reading private detective, that cannibal councillor... Whisper it softly: after three decades of feverish creativity has Almodóvar finally run out of new ideas?

     Certainly the imaginative triggers that led to Broken Embraces seem airless, even claustrophobic. Almodóvar has volunteered that one source was a photo of a distant and anonymous couple clinging to each other on the black volcanic beach of Lanzarote. A second was a scene taken from Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia (1954), which is shown on a TV screen in Broken Embraces: visiting Pompeii, Ingrid Bergman is distraught when shown the remains of a couple smothered by the volcanic eruption, even as they continued to embrace.

It's characteristic of Broken Embraces that, after watching the Rossellini sequence, Mateo does not console Lena in her distress but rather takes a photo of them both. Almodóvar thus presents his lava-lovers, without a flicker of irony, as proof of film's ability to freeze the moment, to keep the embrace unbroken. Likewise, the cratered black volcanic soil of Lanzarote, a new location for Almodóvar, is captured by Prieto in strikingly handsome aerial shots. But it is an ambivalent site, at once beautiful and deadly, for an idyll that is as much cinematic as it is romantic.

     It was André Bazin who compared the photographic image to mummification. And, as Almodóvar is surely well aware, the celluloid cocoon is a metaphor for death, as well as immortality. It's no accident perhaps that it is the sex scenes here, which one might have expected to be life-affirming, that are the most chilling of all. In one we see only a disembodied female hand clutching the back of a sofa. In a second, the two lovers are shrouded by sheets, reduced to grotesquely gesticulating and faceless figures. (The visual reference is here to Magritte.)

Perilously fringed by farce, these darkest of noir motifs intrude again and again in Broken Embraces. Thus the central theme of blindness is presented with unremitting seriousness. Homar trained for weeks to play the sightless screenwriter. And Spain's unusually influential association for the blind, known as ONCE, provided not only consultants in preproduction but also monitors on set to ensure the depiction of the visually impaired was appropriate. The most touching moment of the whole film is perhaps when Mateo's sightless fingers caress a screen on which footage of his long-lost last embrace with Lena is playing in slow motion. The images are jerky and snowy, endlessly extended.

     Likewise, Almodóvar's past interest in the hospital as a location becomes close to obsessive here. Already The Flower of My Secret (1995), All About My Mother, and Talk to Her (2002) had featured central figures in a coma. In Broken Embraces no fewer than four characters (at my count) spend periods in hospital. And the plot turns on these moments of bodily breakdown. At the start the young and lovely Lena hooks up with the aged and predatory Martel because he pays for her dying father to be admitted to a private clinic (Buñuel's muse Angela Molina, now cruelly aged, has a moving cameo as Lena's mother here). Much later the revelation of a final back-story, explaining the relation between the two periods and places of the film, is told as a monologue to a patient who has also suffered a medical emergency.

The unusual prominence of this theme of infirmity is no doubt autobiographical. In lengthy interviews granted to the Spanish press, Almodóvar has cited his new propensity to migraines as a further source for the film. Like his blind and sick characters, then, he has found himself suddenly lost in the dark and vainly seeking a medical solution to a mysterious malady. As a professional of light, Almodóvar is clearly sensitive to his special vulnerability here. Indeed the last words of dialogue in Broken Embraces state that a film must always be finished even if it is "a ciegas": a Spanish idiom equivalent to "in the dark", but literally meaning "blind".

This theme of mortality and morbidity clearly connects with older audiences, who, in Spain as elsewhere, are infrequent visitors to the multiplex. At the 4pm screening I attended in central Madrid the day after Broken Embraces had its world premiere some of the more mature moviegoers had brought walking sticks and even crutches to the auditorium. Others were dead ringers for the veteran performers (like Chus Lampreave) whom Almodóvar has so generously resuscitated for his film. While later showings no doubt attracted a younger, nocturnal crowd, there seems little doubt that Almodóvar continues to connect in his home country with a surprisingly broad demographic.

But even given this newly urgent awareness of the fragility of the body, understandable in an artist fast approaching his seventh decade, the sheer stress on sickness in Broken Embraces remains disturbing. And the density of Almodóvar's cinephile references has also been upped to an almost intolerable level. So we are given the very prominent quote from Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia (as there was in Volver to Visconti's Bellissima); and the nods to Welles and film noir in Mateo's pseudonym "Harry Caine" (like Charles Foster Kane, Almodovar's magnate funds his lover's abortive artistic career; like James M. Cain, Almodóvar prefers his femmes to be fatales). Even a minor character, the creepy son of the sinister producer, who loves to film everything and brandishes his tripod like a weapon, is finally (and inevitably) compared to Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. Iglesias' subtle, probing score seems to cite Bernard Herrmann's in Vertigo, as Almodóvar cuts, in a typically precise and evocative graphic match, from spinning reels of celluloid to a spiral staircase, shot from a dizzying Hitchcock high-angle.

Yet in spite of his desire to control completely the creative process (like the malign magnate at the heart of Broken Embraces's cinematic web), the film constantly threatens to escape from Almodóvar's control, spiralling off into new and unexpected territory. And, unlike the crowd-pleasing Volver, Broken Embraces may prove dense and difficult for wider audiences, its plotting over-elaborate and its reflexivity too hermetic for those who have not been seduced in advance by Almodóvar's unique vision and body of work.

If, then, Broken Embraces failed to move me as much as previous installments of Almodóvar's oeuvre, it may be that Pedro's mastery of film form, revealed here in its full richly dark palette, for once does not offer us access to the mystery of human emotion that he has explored so well elsewhere. As a tale of amour fou, Almodóvar's chosen description of his film, it surely should. Perhaps Pedro's hyper-celebrity in Spain, which he claims makes it impossible to live like a normal citizen, has cut him off from the rich street and social life of the capital which nurtured his first features, leaving him a celluloid vampire, nourished only by the lifeblood of other filmmakers.

Yet for all the continued criticism in Spain, it remains the case that in almost thirty years of filmmaking Almodóvar has never suffered the artistic and commercial failure that befalls his central character in Broken Embraces. And the Manchegan master can still surprise us. In the closing minutes of Broken Embraces, there is an audacious grinding of gears as we jump from tragic denouement to comic renewal and see for the first time a full-blown sequence from the candy-coloured farce that is the film within the film. It is a moving reminder of the lengthy past that is shared by Spain's most consistent filmmaker and his faithful fans. And this daring tonal shift alone confirms that Almodóvar remains one of the most ambitious and challenging cineastes working in Europe today.



Paul Julian Smith is the author of the forthcoming Spanish Screen Fiction: Between Cinema and Television (Liverpool University Press).