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Penelope Cruz and Lluis Homar in a scene from the Spanish-language film Broken Embraces.


3 out of 4 stars


Broken Embraces

  • Directed and writtenby Pedro Almodovar
  • Starring Lluis Homar and Penelope Cruz
  • Classification: 14A

In the world of Pedro Almodovar, there are good films and some that are much better. After a string of intoxicating offerings including All About My Mother, Talk to her, Volver and Bad Education , Broken Embraces feels like a mild letdown that's calculated in every frame, but soft in its emotional punch.

Directed by Pedro Almodovar, Broken Embraces stars Lluis Homar and Penelope Cruz.

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A patented Almodovar melodramedy, the film is a kind of tribute to the Hollywood Technicolor potboilers of the 1950s, with lush visuals and a convoluted plot that takes place in two time periods. Cinematic conceits and a velvety palette echoing mid-fifties Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk aside, the real object of interest here is the face and body of star Penelope Cruz, who is turned out in all manner of wigs, form-fitting outfits and sometimes nothing at all. In her fourth Almodovar film, Cruz the Muse plays Lena, a ravishing young actress of doubtful talent, who's at the centre of a love triangle between a director and the aged producer who is her husband.

The lively opening scene, set in 2008, features a middle-aged, blind screenwriter who goes by the name of Harry Caine (Almodovar veteran Lluis Homar), which evokes both his film-noir inclinations and the stormy weather in his past. Harry has just met a young woman on the street and asked her to come back to his apartment to read him the newspaper. She reads aloud an obit for a wealthy Chilean industrialist, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), whose name Harry clearly recognizes, but pretends he doesn't. A few minutes later, Harry is undressing the woman and having vigorous sex on the sofa.

They've barely finished their encounter when another older woman knocks on the door? His wife? No - and that's just the first of a series of red herrings in the movie. She's a long-time colleague and literary agent, Judit (Blanca Portillo), who chastises Harry for his casualness with strangers, but otherwise doesn't seem bothered.

Later, when Judit is out of town, and her twentysomething son, Diego (Tamar Novas), is laid up after an inadvertent overdose, Harry starts to tell him about his life 14 years ago. That's when he still had his eyesight and worked as a director, named Mateo Blanco. He also explains why the late Ernesto Martel's photographer son, Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano) recently visited them, wanting to collaborate on a script about "a son's revenge on his father's memory."

Back in the early nineties, Ernesto Martel employed and lusted after his secretary, Lena, a failed actress and one-time call-girl. Now needing money to care for her dying father, Lena turned to Ernesto. Later, married and living in designer luxury, she seeks work as an actress again. Martel has agreed to finance a film for her, a comedy called Girls and Suitcases (a madcap comedy reminiscent of Almodovar's own 1988 comedy, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown ) which was directed by Mateo. With Ernesto's influence, Lena gets the part but soon falls for the handsome director and his hands-on style. Her husband, Ernesto, is soon suspicious of their relationship and hires his gay, nerdy teenaged son (Ochandiano again) to shoot the "making-of" documentary, while secretly spying on Lena. Back at his apartment, he watches the silent footage in shock, as a deadpan lip reader fills him in on the blossoming affair. Confrontations, escape and tragedy follow.

Throughout, Almodovar's film is filled with doublings, echoes, repetitions and quotes from other movies. Many of the characters have at least two names and one secret. There are three visits to hospitals; two erotic escapes to remote beach resorts, to Ibiza (with Ernesto) and Lanzarote (with Mateo). There are several layers of films within films, including a sequence from Roberto Rossellini's Voyage to Italy on a TV set. Cruz alone has three names (including her call-girl designation) and is dressed in costumes suggesting everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Marilyn Monroe, and while Cruz acquits herself capably, this is, necessarily, an exercise in virtuosic superficiality.

All this might suggest that this enfolded movie could prove more rewarding with a repeat viewing, though, in fact, the opposite is true. Several scenes feel unnecessarily drawn out, the contrivances feel more forced and, at 128 minutes - Almodovar's longest film to date - Broken Embraces is an easy film to bid farewell to.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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