Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s new film Broken Embraces is a homage to his own cinematic influences, and the process and paraphernalia of film-making.
His 17th feature film is simultaneously a departure from his acclaimed 1988 Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and the more recent Talk to Her and All About My Mother.
Broken Embraces is a story of how a tragic memory is held secret but forced out into the open ten years later.
The film is structured around continual time shifts between 1994 and 2004.
The voice-over of Mateo, the central character, structures the narrative. He has been blinded since the events occurred and is later known only by his pseudonym Harry Caine.
The story that is revealed begins when film director Mateo (Lluis Homar) begins an affair with Lena (Penelope Cruz) on set of the film they are making.
Their affair is complicated by Lena’s relationship with influential businessman Ernesto Martel. It ends tragically.
Ten years later the story is reawakened and brought back into the lives of Matteo, his agent Judit who looks after him, and her son.
The time that has elapsed seems to have allowed all involved to confront their pasts and re-edit the film that they were making.
Breaking from Almodovar’s melodramatic roots, Broken Embraces has a film-noir thriller feel. There are many references to classic films throughout that will engage film-lovers.
The film within a film, along with Ernesto’s son’s surveillance film, also push cinematic themes to the fore.
The proliferation of references constantly reminds the audience that we are watching a film and distances us from the individual lives of the characters on screen.
In effect, this moves Broken Embraces away from Almodovar’s previous emotional dramas.
Having said that, this gives rise to some of the most poetic and memorable moments in the film. For example, Lena essentially dubs her own words alongside a surveillance film of herself telling Ernesto that she is leaving him.
And as Ernesto’s jealousy escalates the repeated image of a spiral staircase and the intense musical score are used, echoing Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Vertigo.
Broken Embraces presents many themes. This includes the problems and resolution of the father and son relationship, including Ernesto and his son, and Mateo and the biological son he does not know he has.
Characters take on multiple identities.
This is a theme played out memorably in a scene in which Lena tries on multiple wigs and roles for a photo shoot. This is the moment where we see that Mateo is falling in love with her.
This also takes us back to the history of cinema. We are reminded of the glamour and beauty, yet artifice, of the great Hollywood leading ladies Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn.
What Broken Embraces loses in emotional drama it gains in its engagement with politics – this is something that Almodovar’s previous films don’t have.
Though it is perhaps overladen with all of the other themes, the importance of the past being open, of confronting your own complicity in a history that you might like to re-edit, is possibly the most important.
Almodovar has cited Spain’s 2007 Law of Historical Memory as being an important influence.
He feels history was necessarily kept secret during the establishment of democracy in Spain following the end of General Franco’s fascist regime in the mid-1970s.
He believes that people had a self-imposed blindness to what had occurred during the 1936-9 Civil War between fascist and Republican forces. By 2007, he feels the moment had come for people to confront the atrocities of the Franco era.
In the film, following the tragic ending of their affair and Mateo’s blindness, there eventually follows the revelation of the past.
What results is the formation of new relationships based on honesty.
Broken Embraces, though visually beautiful and engaging, is perhaps not the most enjoyable of Almodovar’s films.
However, it could be an interesting breaking point in which new interests replace some of his old signature obsessions.
There can be no doubting that he is a master of capturing the drama, tragedy and humour in life, and he does so beautifully.
Broken Embraces is out on general release from Friday 28 August