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September 26, 2016

Sumptuous ‘Embraces’ (3)

 

“Broken Embraces” takes full advantage of its place on the screen. It’s like a delicious Georgia peach, begging to be bitten into. The sheer sumptuousness of the images it contains are almost overpowering, at times threatening to overwhelm the narrative. But director Pedro Almodovar manages to pull them off, allowing for a near-perfect synthesis of narrative and spectacle.

We are told the story of a blind film director named Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), and the experiences he had 14 years previously when he worked and loved with the tempestuous of beautiful Lena (Penelope Cruz). He lives with his assistant Judit Garcia (Blanca Portillo) and her son, Diego (Tamar Novas). The conflict is seemingly reignited (for all of the events in this film relate to what happened 14 years before) when an obituary for millionaire Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez) is published and a mysterious man who requests to be called only by his pseudonym, “Ray X,” (Ruben Ochandiano) re-enters the life of Mateo. It seems to be a case for blackmail, but there may be more here than meets the eye.

Not much else should be said about the plot, due to the fact that the film’s melodramatic structure means that up to a certain point, anything the characters could possibly choose to do – no matter how over-the-top, villainous, or manipulative – will be done. This commitment to melodrama permeates the film, remitting only in an about-face ending that is almost shocking in its gentleness. It’s not just that it is a happy ending. It is the right ending, and nothing else needs be said about it.

Almodovar (“Volver,” 2004’s “Bad Education”) has once again made a film for people who love film, which may prove to be a negative aspect for casual filmgoers. Obvious influences abound in this film, including to Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt,” which is distinctive for its nearly abstract treatment of seemingly mundane images, rendering them beautiful. The preparation of kielbasa by Cruz on a film set becomes a subtly glorious image, worthy of framing and hanging on a wall. But of course, the so-called titular “Broken Embraces” aren’t simply those of the lovers in this film. They are also those of the viewer’s with these gorgeous images. The camera can only linger for so long on one image. To lend them meaning, and so we can truly appreciate them, they must fade in time with the memories of these characters.

In addition to Godard, we can see traces of references to Hitchcock and of Douglas Sirk (1955’s “All That Heaven Allows”). One sequence practically has Almodovar listing off influences (“‘Fanny and Alexander,’ ‘8 ½,’  intones Diego, reading movie titles off of Mateo’s shelf).

“I want to hear the sound of Jeanne Moreau’s voice,” says Mateo, later explaining that he wishes to watch “Elevator to the Gallows.”

“I’ll look up her number,” replies Diego, not understanding. While this may mean little to somebody who has not had exposure to these films, for students of the greats, this sequence (and most of the “Broken Embraces”) plays out beautifully.

Penolope Cruz is a revelation, at least for this reviewer. She is a beacon of melodramatic crimson. She is a shot of gin directly to the system. One could almost say that her place in this film says just as much about Almodovar’s vision of her as that of the characters. We the audience are consequently privy to a world that exists continually both as a narrative and as a self-reflexive piece. By this, I mean that the film exists as a story in itself, and as a commentary on the full implications contained by the story in their cinematic space. Is there any other reason to go to the movies?

Mark Schiffer can be reached at mschiffe@student.umass.edu.

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