Broken Embraces: Almodovar’s Film Noir, Starring Penelope Cruz










After experiencing unparalleled success for about a decade, Broken Embraces (“Los Abrazos Rotos”) left a lesser impact on viewers, due to the fact that it was more impressive visually than narratively.  Though showing that he is a distinctive stylist, Broken Embraces was perceived as a film that treads water rather than breaks new grounds.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

This feature displays Almodovar’s control over every aspect of the production, but this time, it also shows the deliberate work involved in the textual construction.  Despite elaborate mise en scene and rich color palette, “Broken Embraces” feels less like an original feature than yet another take on the noir melodrama, a genre overused in cinema.

Almodovar’s most expensive movie to date, “Broken Embraces” revisits old themes that have intrigued him for decades. The movie combines his three favorite genres, amour fou, crime-noir, and serio comedy, a mixture better understood when placed against the context of classic Hollywood cinema, and against the context of his own oeuvre. Thematically, the tale concerns Mateo (Lluis Homar), a former filmmaker who’s now blinded, trying to piece together a tragic episode of his past, his doomed affair with Lena (Penelope Cruz), a would-be actress and the mistress of Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), the millionaire-producer of Mateo’s latest picture. Crammed with many characters and subplots, and structured as a film-within-film, “Broken Embraces” is a work in which the director places in one text almost everything he knows about cinema.  There’s another problem: The closure in the last reel, which brings everything together by deploying a Freudian perspective, may be too facile.

broken_embraces_5_almodovarLike other Almodovar pictures, “Broken Embraces” begins with a steamy sex scene, here between a blind middle-aged but still handsome writer and a much younger journalist who comes to interview him.  Mateo asks the girl to describe in detail her face, her skin, her dress, and above all her body measurements, specifically breasts and thighs.  Surprisingly for a professional reporter, she responds to each question with a curious glee in her eye.  Mateo begins to caress her perfectly-shaped breasts, and soon, the couple is in the sack.  Through a slow tracking shot of a purple sofa, we see just one foot of the girl hanging up in the air, with sounds of moaning and groaning in the background.  When the quick sex is over, the girl goes to clean up in the bathroom, and in perfect timing, the bell door rings and his producer, Judith Garcia, enters.  Realizing what has happened, she helps Mateo retrieves his shirt from the floor while he zips up his pants.

Bearing double identity, the protagonist-writer, answers to two names.  In the first identity, he is Harry Caine (Perhaps a combination of the hero of “Citizen Kane” and Harry Lime, the character played by Orson Welles in “The Third Man”?), a playful pseudonym with which he signs his stories. The other, Mateo Blanco, his real name, was used when he was a famous director.

broken_embraces_1_almodovarSwitching back and forth between Madrid in the 1990s (first 1992, then 1994) and the present time, the story establishes that 14 years ago, Harry/Mateo had a brutal car accident on the magnificent island of Lanzarote, in which he lost his sight and the love of his life, Lena.  After the accident, whose circumstances would be revealed at the end, Mateo goes back to his pseudonym, denying his past.  Harry is being taken care of by Judith (Blanca Portillo, who played Agustina in “Volver”), his faithful production manager, with whom, we find out later, he had a brief affair.  Also helping him is Judith’s sensitive son, Diego (Tamar Novas of Amenabar’s “The Sea Inside”), who’s multi-tasking as Mateo-Harry’s secretary-assistant, driving him around to his chores and typing his scenarios, and also serving as his guide and social companion, listening to his advice and his stories.  In a state of denial, Harry, still dynamic and attractive, lives a lifestyle caused by a self-induced amnesia.  Over the years, he has learned how to benefit from his other ultra-developed senses, a compensation for the loss of his sight.  Though Harry is a good listener, he is a much better raconteur.

Harry and Diego’s mutual affection evolves into a deeply intense male bonding, when Harry rescues the youth after a drug overdose accident in a disco club sends Diego to the hospital.  The two men conspire not to tell Judith, who was out of town that night.  During his convalescence, Diego asks Harry about the origins of his other name, Mateo.  After resistance, Harry begins to tell him the story of his life as a form of entertainment, the way fathers tell children fairytales when they put them to bed.  In the course of the narrative, Harry would also embrace the role of Diego’s father, first surrogate and then biological.

broken_embraces_2_almodovarLike Manuela in “All About My Mothers,” all of her life, Judith has lied to Diego about his father’s identity, leading the boy to believe that he is the product of an affair with a stranger.  Manuela had no chance to reveal the truth to her son, but Judith has.  In a lengthy confession, she discloses that she had a brief affair with a man (who unbeknownst to her or to him was a closeted gay), but that Diego is actually Mateo’s biological son, an unknown fact to the father, as well.


Not surprisingly, Harry’s fable is dark, a classic amour fou in which the central triangle is formed by Lena (Cruz), a beautiful aspiring actress, and two older men, Harry, her director in a film called “Girls and Suitcases,” and Ernesto Martel Sr., the film’s producer and Lena’s older lover and provider.  Early on, Lena works as Martel’s secretary, and when she confides in him that her father is dying of cancer, Martel, who’s been lusting after her, comes to the rescue, providing expensive private care for him.

We learn that Lena has occasionally worked as an escort-prostitute for an old madam. One night, when Lena’s worried mother calls to report that her father’s condition had worsened, Lena, out of desperation, calls the madam.  In yet another tribute to Bunuel, this time to the 1967 surreal masterpiece “Belle de Jour,” Lena introduces herself as Severine, which is the name (Severine Serizy) of Catherine Deneuve’s heroine in Bunuel’s 1967 celebrated surreal film. Violating professional ethics, the madam gives Lena’s personal number to her client, who “happens” to be Martel.  Martel calls Lena right away, prompting the frightened girl to hang up and to protest to the madam her violation.

broken_embraces_7_almodovar“Broken Embraces” is, after all, a melodrama, and so as to complicate matters, Almodovar introduces Ernesto Martel Jr., the abused gay son of Martel Sr., who hates his father and seeks revenge.  Wishing to be a filmmaker, Martel Jr. follows all of the characters with a video camera that produces incriminating footage against them. The extensive use of phallic items, such as canes, guns, and staircases, is symbolic, as is the motif of the double (prevalent in Almodovar’s films), the playful tone, the self-reflexive references.


“Chicas y Maletas” (“Girls and Suitcases”), the film-within-film in “Broken Embraces,” starring Lena and produced by Martel, is a funny self-conscious take bearing striking similarity to Almodóvar’s own satire, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” right down to the barbiturate-laced gazpacho.  In “Girls and Suitcases,” Cruz plays Carmen Maura’s role in the original—her name is Pena in lieu of Pepa.  Both films were shot in the same location, and the terrace is populated by the same creatures. Cruz’s physical appearance in “Girls and Suitcases” is an imitation of the look of the young Audrey Hepburn.  Other wigs worn by Lena in the tale are inspired by such sex icons as the platinum blonde Marilyn Monroe and the dark-skinned and voluptuous Sophia Loren.

broken_embraces_4_almodovarThe color red is one of the unifying elements of Lena’s guises, a color that defines her numerous costumes and the whole picture.  Just as in Hitchcock’s “Marnie” and Kieslowksi’s “Red,” each and every scene contains several objects in red, be they shirts, shoes, dresses, paintings of big and sharp revolvers, which Almodovar time and again pans, tracks, and scans as ominous signs of things to come. Almodóvar’s careful scripting and methodical editing result in an intricate fusion of disparate elements. Jumbling genres and characters, Almodóvar crams everything that he loves about cinema into “Broken Embraces.”  In the movie that Lena is making for Mateo, Almodovar pokes fun at the casually shocking contents, brightly-colored, and hysterical tone of his own work. Almodóvar’s trademark hot primary colors leap out of the shadowy backgrounds in the exquisite imagery of Rodrigo Prieto, the brilliant Mexican cinematographer.

“Broken Embraces” reflects the work of a director confident in his game, though it’s hard to shake the feeling of deja vu.  The film is replete with self-conscious references to other films and other directors.  Particularly touching is the homage to the Italian neo-realist cinema.  In a brief scene, Mateo and Lena flee Madrid for a vacation that would end disastrously.  In their hotel, they watch on a small TV screen a famous scene from Roberto Rossellini’s 1953 masterpiece, “Voyage to Italy,” starring Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, as a couple whose marriage collapses while visiting archeological ruins.  The scene, which shows in close-up Bergman’s horrified reaction to the skeletons, proves to be too much for the already distraught Lena, and Mateo turns off the TV abruptly.   There are also allusions to classic Hollywood staircase falls, such as the one taken by Gene Tierney in “Leave Her to Heaven,” though here it is not self-induced; Lena is pushed down by her insanely jealous husband.

broken_embraces_3_almodovarLike most American film noir, “Broken Embraces” contains time-shifts and unfolds in flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks.  The flashbacks to Lena’s story begin in 1992, when she’s hoodwinked into marrying her wealthy stockbroker boss, Ernesto Martel Sr.  Martel is brilliantly played by Almodóvar newcomer José Luis Gómez, whose performance blends ruthlessness, benevolence and vulnerability; Gomez is equally impressive in a small part in Almodovar’s next feature, “The Skin I Live In.”


Early on, Mateo declares that he wants to make a movie about a relatively unknown story: the Down’s syndrome son of the famous American playwright Arthur Miller and his wife Inge, whom he wed after Marilyn Monroe. There is a good inside joke here.  When Judith claims that it would be tough to get rights for a biopic about Miller, not to mention that Mateo also has contempt for this popular but artistically debased genre, Mateo says that they will just fabricate and fictionalize the truth. There are the by-now the expected torn-up photos,  suppressed secrets that scream to be revealed in public, blood ties that need to be restored before it’s too late, even scripts about cosmetic-inventing vampires. Sporadically, there are some comedic touches, such as the lip-reading girl (Lola Dueñas), hired by the insanely jealous Ernesto who insists on hearing every word that the adulterous Lena had said, when the tape’s sound fails to reproduce her speech.


Penelope Cruz, who has always looked more comfortable in Spanish than Hollywood films, is terrific as Lena, offering a more nuanced performance than the one that accorded her the Oscar in Woody Allen’s romantic comedy, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” in which she plays the crazy former wife of Javier Bardem!  (The two are now a couple in real-life, raising their child). “Broken Embraces” suffers considerably from the disappearance of Cruz three quarters into the film, and her riveting presence, as a femme fatale juggling lovers and guises, is very much missed.


“Broken Embraces” is so rigorous in its aesthetic strategy that it’s easy to disregard its narrative shortcomings and succumb to the flow of strikingly artful images.  However, formal style aside, “Broken Embraces“ is cold and detached, in sharp contrast to the effortless warmth and emotional depth of Amodovar’s previous features, “Talk to Her” and “Volver.” One of Almodóvar’s most inward-looking film, “Broken Embraces,” he has said, is rooted in the migraines that began afflicting him in recent years. While recovering from them in a darkened room, he conjured the character of a blind filmmaker, reflecting his (and many other directors’) nightmare of losing their vision.  In “Broken Embraces,” Almodovar,” the middle-aged director takes stock, exploring his roots as well as imagining his future.  But for all its dark tragedy, “Broken Embraces” is ultimately an optimistic film.  In the end, the disabled Mateo/Harry continues to work, determined to (re)embrace life.  In one of the film’s most moving scenes, he answers to his Caine identity for the first time in a surreal Felliniesque scene, set on the beach surrounded by kites, surfers, lovers, children and dogs.


No Almodovar film is complete without personal confessions, revelations of secrets, and acts of redemption.  Taking revenge on Mateo, who has run away with his wife, the producer Martel cuts the footage of his film senselessly and mercilessly.  Upon release, the film is predictably panned by the critics and proves to be a flop, a fact learned about from newspaper clips that Mateo and Lena read during their vacation.  But perhaps reflecting Almodovar’s wish fulfillment as a director, the last word belongs to the auteur.  Knowing his love for this particular movie and his devotion to his work, Judith had secretly kept a copy of the assemblage with all the takes, which she now gladly hands over to Mateo.  “Broken Embraces” is a film where pleasure emerges out of darkness, where light needs to struggle before conquering the shadows.  At the end, the newly-formed social and professional family, composed of Mateo, Judith and Diego, sets out to work on a new version, which is faithful to the director’s original vision, resulting in a satisfying movie. After two hours of a relentlessly bleak melodrama, Almodovar lifts his viewers’ spirits by making them realize that, no matter how bad things are in the present, there’s always something to enjoy in the present and anticipate for the future.