“Everything’s already happened to me,” admits Harry Caine, the blind, middle-aged filmmaker in Broken Embraces. “All that’s left is to enjoy life.” ¡Sí! His own sights set low these days in his latest movie, reformed bad boy Pedro Almodóvar has at least hit on a vivid metaphor for his diminished condition. Indeed, three decades into his career as a name-brand fashioner of zesty soapers, Spanish cinema’s most beloved export could direct un film de Almodóvar with his eyes shut and still get a rise out of his fans. So who could blame the matador for letting the bull run the show this time?
Equal parts comic melodrama and film noir, and twice as fun as it ought to be, Broken Embraces boasts more bifurcations than any two Hitchcock classics. Channeling Audrey Hepburn, Almodóvar muse Penélope Cruz plays Lena, a Madrid secretary who moonlights as a hooker named Severine before turning full-time to (what else?) film acting. Pretending to be in love with ancient Ernesto (José Luis Gómez), her boss-turned-producer, Lena is secretly carrying on with her director, Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar), who changes his name to Harry Caine upon losing his eyesight in a car crash. Fourteen years after the accident, a gay, twice-married goofball who calls himself Ray X is identified by blind Harry as actually being Ernesto Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano), who had once shot a documentary on the set of Harry/Mateo’s Girls and Suitcases, starring Lena. That zany comedy—vindictively edited by its producer, Ernesto Sr.—is a dead ringer for Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge. . . .
Got all that? No matter. Though Almodóvar takes 10 sheets of press-kit paper to summarize and explicate the film, he still leaves out some details, none of which are terribly important. For all its narrative incident, related through a flurry of loosely motivated flashbacks and -forwards, Broken Embraces goes disarmingly light on cause and effect. Call it a labyrinth of passion. Harry’s production manager, Judit (Blanca Portillo), silently carries a torch for him; her DJ son, Diego (Tamar Novas), lands in a coma by accidentally mixing Ecstasy and GHB; Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy is playing on TV while Mateo and Lena are on vacation themselves—this is the shaggiest of Almodóvar’s movies, the most enamored of storytelling for its own sake, since 1984’s enjoyably baffling What Have I Done to Deserve This? Many critics have responded negatively after festival screenings, docking the erstwhile master of candy-colored mise-en-scène for leaning too heavily on dialogue—but Almodóvar’s talk-to-me approach here seems perfectly suited to his protagonist’s loss of vision, if not to his own.
Blatantly cruddy by Almodóvar standards, the first shot of Broken Embraces is a brown-tinged peek through the kind of video camera used on a film set to deliver instant playback of scenes. What it shows is a group of actors, including Cruz’s Lena, getting ready for a take; what it represents is an old-school celluloidist’s fear of DV. Pushing 60, Almodóvar seems aware of both bodily and aesthetic fragility as never before; some of the bloom has faded even from his rosier images, which gives Broken Embraces an extra dimension of melodrama despite the director’s bid to hang loose in his “old” age.
Fossilized Ernesto, plotting revenge from behind the scenes, conspires to rearrange Suitcases and Lena both. Is it too late for another of Almodóvar’s miraculously happy endings? As the power of cinema brings a Broken character back from the dead, some of what’s been out of order fits back together—not least in the editing room. Maybe Almodóvar—blindly optimistic, confident enough to coast—has still got it after all.