The plot reveals an intricate maze, in which all of the characters find themselves intimately connected, but no one in the story emerges from this labyrinth unscathed.
When your lover has gone — leaving only darkness as a companion — where in this world can you find some consolation? In lieu of drinking away your sense of abandonment, I suggest you turn that restless gaze toward the next screening of Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, Broken Embraces. If, however, you are happily espoused, and no unrequited love has ever haunted you or caused you harm, then this Spanish melodrama won’t savage your memory banks. Romantic emotion, which, in this case, idealizes an absent lover, saturates every frame of this film.
As in Volver, Almodóvar’s 2006 release, Penélope Cruz is the director’s muse and protagonist. Unlike Volver, the point of view has shifted from her character’s first-person, present-tense actions, to a third-person, past-tense account, or recounting, of her story. This change signals a more elliptical mode of storytelling from the previous film. In Volver, we trust the immediacy of the events on screen because they are unfolding forward in time; Broken Embraces requires something else from the audience: patience, as the narrative shifts in time are both backwards and forward. We are also dependent upon the memory and reliability of one narrator, Mateo, the damaged lover (as it turns out), and we have to trust his version of events.
In doing so, the filmmaker has taken a great risk: he focuses our sympathies on a man, Mateo, and not first allying us with Cruz’s character Lena. Volver posited a world of intense female camaraderie, where men are the source of damage and grief. Almodóvar’s first international success, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), imagined a similar society, where women act as each other’s foils and consciences, with conditional (yet affectionate) love, and often humorous support. In his subsequent films, the most affecting ones show realistic portraits of women, in their roles at work and at home, as struggling mothers, wives, daughters, sisters and lovers. Like George Cukor before him, Almodóvar elicits cinematic magic from the actresses he casts. With the exception of Talk to Her, the stories he writes for men fall flat by comparison. For Broken Embraces, the risk he’s taken with this narrative shift, and the complexity it breeds, pays off in the end.
The plot reveals an intricate maze, in which all of the characters find themselves intimately connected, but no one in the story emerges from this labyrinth unscathed. Each character is introduced and defined by a weakness, some flaw that instantly humanizes them. Mateo, a writer and film director, is blind. And our first glimpse of Lena, an aspiring actress, is when she’s in distress. Her father is dying of cancer. Ernesto, her boss, arranges for his palliative care. Out of gratitude, and perhaps resignedly, Lena allows herself to become the mistress of this wealthy, older man.
The actor Jose Luis Gomez imbues Ernesto’s eyes with all of that man’s emotional limitations: they are ravenous for Lena, and nothing else. He is in the impossible position of a Humbert Humbert, wracked with inappropriate, unyielding desire. After Lena meets Mateo and they become lovers, she feels freed enough to confess her revulsion to Ernesto’s touch. There is an astonishing scene that follows when Ernesto, fearing he has already lost Lena, spirits her out of town for a weekend getaway. Almodóvar films their bodies, engaged in sex, completely covered in ghostly white sheets. At one point, as in Magritte’s painting The Lovers (1928), hoods form around their heads, brilliantly foreshadowing someone’s demise. After this sad coupling, Lena stands, bare breasted, in front of the bathroom mirror.
It is a familiar trope in filmmaking, a woman confronting her own reflection in a mirror. This is a private space, a room of her own, where she prepares her appearance, her public face. There are countless examples: Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons; Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull; Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai; ad infinitum. It is a moment of stock-taking, of epiphany, or even transformation. Naked, in front of the mirror, it is clear that Lena is aware of the choices she has made in her life, the ones that have brought her to that particular moment of moral sickness and doubt. Cruz makes the revelation heart-breaking. Since her star-making turn in Volver, Cruz has evolved into a great actress, whose films the audience longs to return to: she and Almodóvar have created whole and complete worlds. Indeed, Broken Embraces mirrors our own — but brightly — and is suffused with terrible need and wistful desire.