The Fever Dreams Continue: On Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces

With characters so intriguing and narratives so deep, it's hard to figure out where Pedro begins: with the plot or the people. His scenarios launch off as melodramas, until the plots go deeper into the characters' psyches. Hence, the central players come full bloom, as rich a – perhaps richer than? – the persons of a tamer character drama. But, why restrict genius which such a question? Perhap the richness of Almodóvar comes in a flourish.

Pedro's career began with zany plots and zanier characters, but his style matured, somewhere around Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), to reflect uncanny familiarity to the everyday viewer. Hence, we sympathize with Benigno, the obsessive orderly of Talk to Her, or with Hermana Rosa of Mother, loved by a tranny, but loved passionately, regardless. Almodóvar finds characters odd yet real, often through backstory, and reflects the common, primal experience. For viewers, getting to the filmmaker's crescendo is like a psychic mind trip that we never ourselves dreamed, but wish we could.

Broken Embraces reaches near the highest ranks of the filmmaker's work, specifically, All About My Mother and Talk to Her. Surely, Volver and Bad Education made for especially rewarding trips to the arthouse, but the former two films not only reach a state of grandeur, but elevate beyond it. Both films continue to rise beyond our expectations, which, in the presence of Pedro, feel humble.

Embraces reaches such grandeur, but can't rise on and on from there. Once again, Pedro muses on the human need to create. A former-filmmaker/now scenarist is named Harry Caine (a name which rings of Harry Lime, that legendary character on a quest). Caine no longer realizes movies because he has lost the means – vision – to do so. The loaded premise has us wondering what made the man go from film helmer (when he was known as Mateo Blanco) to blind scriber, until we think back to the opening shot, of Penelope Cruz's character, Lena, preparing for a closeup. Here, we then realize, is the answer.

Cue the extended Almodóvarian flashback, and we learn that Harry met Lena, a former-secretary/part-time call-girl, by chance. She has become the lover of business mogul Ernesto Martel, who's brought her financial comfort but strained intimacy. (Pedro serves up what seems like a boon, a topless Cruz, her character post-coital from Ernesto, only to have her vomit in near closeup – a sex-object upturned right onto our heads.) Mateo casts her in his latest film, his first attempt at a comedy. Then Ernesto sticks his foot in the door by funding the project.

Ernesto has his son, a rather lost gay youth, videotape on the set under the disguise of a documentary project. This documenting becomes diegetic reflexive viewing (the counterpoint to Mateo's lost vision, we soon learn) as Ernesto screens the footage for evidence that Lena's cheating with Mateo. Like most suspicious stalker-lovers, Ernesto finds his evidence, then moves to sabotage the production. As those with the power of the dollar can, he succeeds. Thus comes both eponymous fractures, one resulting in another.

Mateo's assistant/agent, Judit, also plays into the drama's unraveling. Originally a professional acquaintence, she's become a caregiver to him too. In the finest of Pedro films, all the past life is matter for reflection to those in the film's present, and layered analysis for us. In this sense, the filmmaker borrows from film noir as he does from melodrama; for the former tradition, as Paul Schrader noted in his seminal 1972 essay, “Notes on Film Noir,” is obsessed with the past. In Almodóvar, the past is reckoned by characters of the present, a layering over which we revel.

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