In his latest, Broken Embraces, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar manages to compress into a two-hour movie the kind of off-the-wall plot points that could fuel a soap opera for a year. While other directors like Steven Soderbergh or the Coen brothers delight in tackling multiple genres, Almodóvar seems obsessed with bouncing back and forth between just two: the frantic melodrama and the demented comedy.
Almodóvar treats both with his token excess: fretful hand-wringing, kinky sex, heartbreak, prostitution, transvestites, drugs, and complicated family dynamics. If despairing crooner Edith Piaf and wacky subversive John Waters had a love child, it might bear a sensibility close to Almodóvar's.
Broken Embraces blends comic elements in its film-within-a-film, but it is, for the most part, a hysterical, outrageously-plotted melodrama filled with foreboding music and nods to Hitchcock as its characters edge closer and closer to their doom. We know bad things are coming thanks to the multiple cues in music and tone and an understanding — via film and literary precedent — of how beautiful women with angry, rich benefactors and handsome younger lovers end up.
In Almodóvar's navel-gazing Broken Embraces, directors, filmmaking, voyeurism, and the camera — serving as an agent of control here — are all examined in an enterprise very much about both the transcendent and creepy dimensions of peering at life through a camera lens.
Broken Embraces' plot is a typically labyrinthine affair, centered on a blind screenwriter Harry Caine (Lluís Homar) who is doted on by an overprotective, jealousy-prone assistant Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her DJ son Diego (Tamar Novas). But when a sinister young aspiring screenwriter calling himself Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano) shows up at Harry's apartment with a story idea, the film falls back into flashback mode, as the mystery man's identity is revealed.
During the flashback, Harry recalls his love affair with actress Lena (Penélope Cruz), who, unfortunately, is also the mistress of a very wealthy, powerful man Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) with control issues. Ernesto has agreed to finance Harry's comedy Girls and Suitcases, a fictional film whose plotline echoes Almodóvar's loco classic Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, but at the cost of controlling star Lena and eventually threatening the film itself. And those are just the bare bones of the story. Voyeurism, repression, prostitution, death, vindictive women, domestic violence, illness, and drugs all creep into the story as well.
Cruz is undeniably the locomotive pulling Almodóvar's caboose in Broken Embraces. In the film, she plays an earthy, sensual uber-femme in the mode of Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani. It makes perfect sense that her rich lover Ernesto would be unable to let her go, and that her new swain Harry would allow her to call all the shots when it comes to separating from Ernesto.
Almodóvar could never be accused of lazy storytelling or a dearth of ideas. In a world as low-ebb whacked as this, even the most cataclysmic news — secret affairs, love children, blindness — tends to be taken with all of the shock of the day's weather report. Broken Embraces is melodrama dressed in drag: more ludicrous, more over the top, and with a decided air of artificiality too.
The uneven, surreal mix of restraint and perversity in Broken Embraces can recall a lesser Almodóvar work like Talk to Her, more than an out-and-out masterpiece like Bad Education or All About My Mother. But even at half-power, Almodóvar is a storyteller on fire, driven by bizarre and inspired impulses. Broken Embraces is loaded with the kind of incident that makes other filmmakers seem like a plain chicken dinner next to the all-you-can-eat international smorgasbord of Almodóvar.