Los Abrazos Rotos (Pedro Almodovar, 2009)
So, first impressions of the new Almodovar. It sees him continue on his recent trajectory; more sombre and stately, less messy and hysterical. Reflective, philosophical. As glossy and expensive-looking as a Hollywood star vehicle. I think he’s trying to grow old gracefully; a bit like a filmic version of Bryan Ferry or Billy MacKenzie turning to crooner torch songs when they started getting on a bit.
It’s a long film, slightly too long and although some aspects misfire, there’s a hell of a lot going on and it does a decent job of keeping your interest. Secrets spill out, tragedy strikes, the storyline incessantly jumps back from the present day to various points in the 1990s. If you’re a film buff, you’ll certainly enjoy spotting the allusions to other films. They come so thick and fast that at times it feels like a collage.
When we first meet Lena (Penelope Cruz), she’s doing an office job but she has a secret past as a hooker; she calls up her madam (who has the same wallpaper as the rooms in Belle de Jour) and gives her name as Severine. Making a film together, an artist and a money man fight over a beautiful girl, and the one who gets the girl loses her shortly afterwards in a car-crash; Godard’s Le Mepris.
Peeping Tom is in there, Viaggio In Italia, Ascenceur Pour L’Échauffaud, Vertigo of course, some of Pedro’s earlier material, and a possible dig at Woody Allen’s latest Penelope Cruz vehicle. “Alicante or Barcelona?”, film agent Julia (Blanca Portillo) asks some American clients, and is told that “the director very strongly feels that it should be Barcelona”.
The story concerns Mateo/Harry (Lluis Homar), a former director with a distractingly uncanny resemblance to Frasier. He wrote his own scripts and credited them to Harry Caine; when an accident left him blind he started answering only to that name. After vast quantities of exposition, the meat of the story concerns the run-up to his accident and the making of his last film; back in the present day, those still with us finally talk it over and get everything out in the open. Cue catharsis.
If you suspect film-about-director’s-angst navel gazing, you’re not far wrong. Mateo has fought his battles and he’s at peace with the world. There’s another, younger character whom we’re invited to identify with Almodovar, or what Almodovar might have been if he wasn’t careful. Ernesto Martel Jr (who calls himself Ray X) is the son of the tycoon producer bad guy. Penelope Cruz is a muse to him as well. In the 90s scenes Ernesto Jr is a messed-up and confused gay, putting on a camp act and sporting a bowl haircut, spotty face and garish clothes, always poking his handheld camera into the faces of unwilling subjects.
At the (current day) outset, Mateo and Ernesto Jr both want to make films about father/son relationships. Mateo’s is about the son of Arthur Miller -who had Down’s syndrome, was disowned by his father and omitted from his autobiography- but bore no grudges and was eventually reconciled. Ernesto’s film would be a revenge story, about a boy was never accepted by, and who destroys, his father. See how much more mature I am now I’m old?
Yet the film does begin rather pervily. A pretty blonde with firm big tits is reading the newspaper to Mateo, having just helped him across the street. He seduces her very quickly, with directness and precision, and has her on the living room floor (we hear lots of moaning and see her foot dangling over the front of the couch). Clearly he’s worked this routine to a T. Mateo’s agent/sidekick Julia and her son Diego arrive as they’re dressing. Julia clearly disapproves. Mateo is preoccupied with one story in the paper; the death of Ernesto Martel.
Flashback to ’92, and Lena/Cruz is called into her boss’ office (Ernesto Sr is he). She’s been crying and we see her pop a tissue into a bin as she glides down the corridor. Her father has cancer and it is spreading. The film cocks a snook at the public sector when June turns into July, the doctors go on holiday, and instead of operating on her father they cheerfully send him home to die.
We get the Belle de Jour tribute and, with confirmation that Ernesto has the hots for her, Lena turns to him. Of course he’ll pay for her dad to go private and get the best treatment. I think these scenes are there to show that her later relationship with Ernesto has its grounding in prostitution. The next flashback, to ’94, shows the two as a couple and Lena looking ridiculous in too much gold jewellery.
Diego and Mateo haven’t struck us as very close, but they click when Diego comes up with a daft treatment for a Buffy-esque vampire film called Give Blood; tapping into their laptops, boucing ideas off one another. That night, Diego unwittingly swigs from a spiked drink whilst DJing and falls into a coma. Mateo rushes to hospital, takes him home and looks after him. With the camera slowly moving from bed to armchair like a grandfather clock, they get to talking about what happened in ’94…
Mateo is planning a comedy called Girls and Suitcases when Lena walks into his life; being the mistress of a very rich man helps her get the gig. The production team start to make her over; Cruz done up like Audrey Hepburn, then in a Hitchcock Blonde wig (though the camp make-up man says he’s going for Goldie Hawn). They start filming, there’s a nice shot of Cruz’s tears falling onto a tomato as she cooks. The girl’s beautiful and she can act a bit.
Ernesto shows himself as the baddie of the piece now, and the focus for all the Almodovar misandry. To keep an eye on Lena he’s producing the film, giving it an extra director v producer twist and making the battle for Lena an extension of the art/commerce feud. The crew notice that Ernesto is “obsessed” with his girl. He abuses his son’s filmic aspirations by giving him a camera to film the ‘making of’ the film, then hiring a lip-reader to see what Mateo and Lena talk about between takes.
Mateo and Lena’s first sexual encounter is lusty and full-on, with the camera kept in one place but spinning like a kaleidoscope, making the sex seem dizzy and delirious. For contrast, it’s closely followed by Lena and Ernesto in bed; the whole thing is conducted under a white sheet, as if it’s too unnatural and obscene to be shown to us. The white sheet flaps around like a ridiculous ghost. Lena goes to the bathroom to vomit and cry.
On the set Ernesto Jr has been getting in everyone’s way with his handheld camera, always held to his eye like another limb. He starts stalking Lena when she’s off duty. As Ernesto Sr watches the playback, she wrestles the camera from his son, looks into it and tells him all about her and Mateo. She’s leaving him. Ernesto pushes her down a flight of stairs, then realises what he’s done. He becomes mister nice guy again, taking her to hospital. The build-up to this scene is well done, the camera following their shoes as amplified footsteps ring through the morgue-like opulence of Ernesto’s home.
X-rays of Lena’s leg, wrist, skull. When Ernesto brings her back, the domestic staff mutter “ask no questions”. Like an obedient art martyr, Lena says she’ll stay with the pathetic, broken Ernesto if he lets Mateo complete the film and have total artistic control. Mateo is distraught when his lover and star actress comes back on set with her leg in a cast (“People only fall down stairs in films”).
When Lena turns up with a bloody nose it’s the final straw. They manage to finish filming, explaining the plaster cast by adding a menatlly ill character who throws Cruz down the stairs. They immediately elope to Lanzarote. Trying to get a reaction, Ernesto Sr premieres the film without them- as they learn from disastrous reviews in El Pais. Mateo decides to go back to Madrid; but that night the car accident kills Lena and blinds Mateo. Julia and the infant Diego are summoned to Lanzarote; moving scenes as Julia teaches him how to walk down a flight of steps.
In the present day, Diego and Mateo catch a snatch of Girls and Suitcases on TV. The acting is clumsy and lifeless, Mateo is distraught to think he could ever have printed that take. Julia comes back from an assignment and is curious to see the pair so close. It proves to be the catalyst for revelations.
After downing multiple Bombay Sapphires (a bemused barman is left holding the bottles of tonic), Julia tells them that Ernesto Sr’s revenge on the fleeing lovers was to put together and release the worst possible cut of the film (Losey and Eve, Welles and The Magnificent Ambersons; that old chestnut). She ignored his instructions to destroy the good takes and the director’s cut could still be achieved if Mateo so wishes. And by the way Diego, Mateo is your father; Almodovar still can’t resist a bit of melodrama but we could have figured this bit for ourselves.
After they have cleared the air it ends on an optimistic note. They are playing the bona fide take of that same scene from Girls and Suitcases, which from what we can tell is a chaotic, quickfire screwball comedy about a local councillor finding a suitcase filled with cocaine in her flat. It’s great and it makes you think ‘Man, Almodovar was better when his films were like that‘.
Broken Embraces is a good film -good on relationships, on making peace with the past, on bereavement giving way to memories of the good times- but with just too many ingredients thrown into the pot to call it his masterpiece.