Pedro Almodóvar’s films are often compared to soap operas, in form if not function. He relishes interpersonal politics — secrets and lies, hidden relationships, connections whose intricacies unfurl in emotional confrontations. Almodóvar fools us by spooning out low-minded intrigue that is, in fact, a vehicle for sophisticated cinematic statements. As ever, he is exploring the formation of identity in Broken Embraces, but this is perhaps his most explicit gesture in the way cinematic canon plays a role in that identity — Broken Embraces is stacked with reference, homage, pastiche, and the metaphorical insistence of selfhood through visual artistic creation.
The film’s opening shot is an eye reflecting the main protagonist (Lluís Homar), a director and screenwriter who has adopted the Wellesian moniker of Harry Caine after an accident left him with cortical blindness. The shot itself seems to infer, as with Lacan’s Mirror, the creation of false subjectivities. Caine openly acknowledges that he has chosen the name to signify an unspoken tragic shift that accompanied his accident, before which he was known as Mateo Blanco, a filmmaker of some renown. One day Caine is visited by an embittered character (Rubén Ochandiano) calling himself “Ray X” who insists Caine help him pen a screenplay about “a son who wants to destroy his father’s memory.” Caine comes to realize the man is the son of a recently-deceased business mogul, Martel (José Luís Gómez). Thus begins a chain of reminiscences.
Fourteen years prior, Martel decided to finance then-Mateo’s dark comedy “Girls and Suitcases,” which echoes Almodóvar’s own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and served as a vehicle for his mistress, Lena (Penélope Cruz). Mateo falls in love with Lena during her test-screening; the two embark on a doomed love affair informed by the film’s title. Martel, as irredeemable a character as Almodóvar has ever imagined, is possessive and occasionally violent. He senses something is amiss and sends his son, the eventual Ray X, on a mission to spy on the pair during filming under the pretense of making a documentary. Martel then watches his son’s footage and has a lip-reader parse their silent dialogue.
This delightfully convoluted story, itself told via Mateo/Harry’s memories, is rich with metaphorical musing on the cinematic eye. Almodóvar never lulls us with labored pretentiousness, which his film-within-a-film motif would seem to indicate. His concern is the nature of artistic creation, specifically cinema, with its reliance on sight and sound, and how that creation comes to be splintered by insidious forces. The vindictive Martel assaults both Mateo and Lena’s relationship and Mateo’s film, leaving both ruined and Mateo without sight. “Girls and Suitcases” is vivisected by Martel in the editing room, using the worst takes, much like Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. Years later, however, with Martel dead and Mateo in possession of Ray X’s “documentary” footage, there is a chance for some redemption.
Broken Embraces is a good film from a reliably thoughtful filmmaker. There is enough material here, from the rich textual interplay to Penélope Cruz’s reliable vivaciousness (and sweet boobs), to warrant several viewings. The film is, perhaps, a bit too interesting at times, not matching its symbolic prowess with enough emotional ballast, something Almodóvar found easily with Talk to Her and Volver; the film is easier to talk about than relate to. Even so, Broken Embraces is cognizant of itself in ways few films are, reveling in its very nature of cinematic fiction, and certainly worthy of its place in that medium’s history.