Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Attempting to explain the workings of the celebrated Spanish director Pedro Almodovar (All About My Mother, Talk to Her), even the actors themselves have trouble doing so.
Having had the honour of interviewing both Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz, on separate occasions, I can recall their vague embarrassment when pressed to describe the Almodovar projects that they were involved in.
(After a lengthy, sensational-sounding plot description, Banderas shrugged and said, by way of explanation: “It’s Pedro Almodovar!”)
Simply put, the actors seemed to feel that their descriptions did not do justice to the complexities of the director’s works, which tend to involve intricate, perhaps convoluted, narratives, and reach for extremes – often portraying sub-cultures and highly sexual themes.
One can easily recognise Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos) as Almodovar’s handiwork. It is a passionate, noirish-yet-colourful tragedy about dangerous, obsessive loves, as well as the filmmaking process. But, it is nowhere near as accessible as his 2002 masterpiece Talk to Her or the Cruz-vehicle Volver (2006).
It starts off set in 2008 , where we see a blind Spanish man (Lluis Homar) with the curious American-sounding moniker of Harry Caine. He is an aging writer who has no qualms using his disability as a tool to bed beautiful women.
In flashback to the 1990s, we see him as a successful film director, who casts and works with Lena, the beautiful mistress (Cruz) of the wealthy tycoon that is financing his latest project. Inevitably, the man who would be Caine, then known as Mateo Blanco, falls for Lena and the pair play with fire with their torrid affair.
Moving back and forth in time, and including voyeuristic footage shot by the tycoon’s son, who had been commissioned to direct a making-of documentary of Blanco’s film, we get a glimpse at the cheating couple as observed with pique by the vindictive tycoon.
There is much to admire about Almodovar’s film, including the work here of Cruz, who had a memorable recent turn in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, as well as the pervading sense of doom and desperation as secrets and lies are revealed about the principal characters’ lives across 14 years.
As a lip-reader hired by the tycoon to decipher illicit conversations caught on film, Almodovar regular Lola Duenas (Volver), in deadpan manner, provides a few chuckles.
It is, debatable, however, if one could call this an ‘enjoyable’ film. Certainly, it is visually arresting. And there are more than a few absorbing scenes, often with Cruz in focus, where the characters manoeuvre themselves driven by lust, jealousy, and hatred.
In the film’s final third, the revelations come hard and fast, largely spoken by one key character. If they did not surprise or satisfy me, it perhaps speaks of my familiarity with the director’s style, rather than the quality of his storytelling.
For all its style and mystery, and as a representation of Almodovar’s homage to filmmaking and classic noir, Broken Embraces is likely to impress art-house fans and critics much more than potential converts among the general audience.
In a way, the film itself, like Banderas and Cruz in the press interviews, seems to have trouble expressing and doing justice to Almodovar’s vision, convoluted and bracingly original it may be.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
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