Broken Embraces Review: Cruz-in for a Musing

Broken Embraces: On General Release Friday 28th August 2009

Pedro Almodovar once confessed to becoming a little enamored with Penelope Cruz, the leading lady of his last feature Volver during filming.

Despite being gay.

By the end of filming, he suffered frequent migraines, recovering in a darkened room, imagining what it would be like to be a blind film director.

Hours of dark room time and Penny-induced trouser stirrings precipitate Broken Embraces, dubbed his most introspective film to date. It’s got lashings of Penelope; a lavish and dark, prosaic and complicated story of tortured artists, strained relationships and doomed love. Trademark Almodovar.

The story begins in present-day Madrid. When an old acquaintance comes to screenwriter Harry Caine’s door one day, he is forced to confront events from 14 years ago when he was a director working by his real name Mateo Blanco.

Said events led to the car crash that claimed his sight, his career, and the life of his lover (and leading lady) Lena.

Penelope Cruz plays the neurotic/oppressed/luminous Lena, clocking up a fair chunk of screen time with her luminousness. The film feels a bit like an ode to Cruz – a very conscious one at that. If she weren’t quite so stunning it might be off-putting.

We are flitted back and forth between 2008 and 1994, and with the plots developing on either side it’s an ambitious if absorbing affair. Clues from 1994 inform the happenings of 2008 and gradually the fragments come together to form a picture.

Where in past films he’s dealt with female trouble Broken Embraces deals very much with the trials facing Harry. It’s the sharp, witty, but natural exchanges with his long-time friend and former production manager Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas) which, despite the extraordinary proceedings, keep the film’s feet firmly on the ground.

Almodovar is a master of the sublime. He manages to frame life’s ugliness in a way that renders it artifice. He provides the doom and gloom with a vibrant backdrop, somehow creating a heartfelt and uplifting experience in the juxtaposition of pleasure and pain.

However Broken Embraces is so steeped in its story and complicated structure, every so often flying off on a tangent and frequently shifting focus, it lacks perhaps the sensitivity of his previous work. With Penny appearing on screen to be gorgeous every five minutes, maybe it’s a little too concerned with artifice.

It isn’t quite the tug on the heartstrings as Volver or All About My Mother, and very much feels like the 128 minutes it is.

By any other standards however is it a fabulous film. Not one to be dismissed.

Leonie Mercedes

Just can’t wait until Friday for an ooze from the Cruz? She’s in our Top Ten Lesbian Movie Kisses feature… And there’s also our review on the brilliant Sin Hombre if you’re a fan of Spanish-language cinema…