***originally written 1st September 2009***
Broken Embraces is the latest film by Pedro Almodóvar, but the first of his films (which include Volver and Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown) that I have seen. Through two narratives separated by 14 years, it tells the tale of Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), a screenwriter and director who has a passionate affair with his leading lady Lena (Penélope Cruz) who happens to be the mistress of the film’s producer, a stern, obsessive and at times malicious man. A story that has no doubt been told before.
But Broken Embraces is not just another little melodrama, it is more a love-letter to film, and it is lovingly crafted. I saw it on the digital screen at the Picturehouse in Exeter, and the crisp resolution did wonders for the film, which celebrates colour and movement and lighting and all the technical aspects of a film that, really, you’re not supposed to be concentrating on. It’s a rich feast of a production. A real juicy meal. And I haven’t seen a film so indulgent in it’s palette since perhaps Amelie. Almodóvar makes the simplest things gorgeous. Many scenes simply involve two or more people talking in an apartment somewhere, which could have looked terribly plain, but even these kitchen sink moments are crafted with a satisfying richness.
Then there is Almodóvar’s clear love for Cruz, who, in a range of exquisite outfits, lights up the middle stretch of the film. She doesn’t get to portray a character with quite the zest as her role in Vicki Cristina Barcelona, but nevertheless the camera adores her, and she makes a lot out of a fairly cliché role. Her absence for about half an hour toward the end is really noticed. I never thought much of her before this year, but with these two films back-to-back, I could be quite readily converted. More impressive in terms of acting is Lluis Homar, who creates a real human being out of Mateo as he reminisces on those heady days.
The film is not without some faults however, mainly to do with structure and pacing. I don’t mind a slow film (in fact I tend to love slow films), but it takes a good twenty-five minutes of meandering at the start before even the slightest resemblance to a plot or a point comes into focus. These opening minutes are fine, and as warm as the rest of the film, but the lack of urgency requires some patience from the viewer. You have to want to be interested. The final act too teases things out, as action and drama is replaced with a series of scenes of exposition and long-held secrets being discussed at length. The ending is rewarding enough, but at the end it feels like a 90 minute movie stretched out to just over two hours.
A case of style over substance? Perhaps. But what style. I felt like I was watching a living, breathing fashion magazine. And on this evidence, I shall be looking out for more of Pedro Almodóvar’s work in the future.