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On Movies: Embrace 'Broken Embraces'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 7, 2010 - Pedro Almodovar’s hypnotically watchable new movie is rich with references to legendary filmmakers. But even if you don’t know Michael Powell, Douglas Sirk or even Federico Fellini from the Three Stooges, you should enjoy “Broken Embraces.” Unlike, say, Todd Haynes’s overly-stylized 2002 imitation of the high baroque of Sirk in “Far from Heaven,” Almodovar’s masterful new feature is much more than an homage to earlier filmmakers. “Broken Embraces” stands on its own as both a compellingly twisted, surprisingly witty tale, and as a fascinating summary of all Almodovar has learned in his three decades of filmmaking.

The film abounds in meaning. The protagonist is a blind filmmaker – how’s that for a fertile metaphor? – who calls himself Harry Caine, a name that, like the movie itself, is so rich with film allusions it’s hard to know where to start. (With Michael Caine, who played Harry Palmer in “The Ipcress File?” With “Citizen Kane” or “The Trouble with Harry?” With all the characters named Harry in film noir and noir novelist James M. Cain?) But at the center is a suspenseful, noirish melodrama about how the past can come back both to haunt us, and to bless us. As, in a sense, the filmmakers out of the past who have influenced Almodovar both haunt and bless him.

In the case of Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), the past has left him sightless, although far from helpless. When we first meet Harry, he is using his blindness as a lure to seduce women. Then we learn that he continues to work on films, as a screenwriter. He is not unhappy with his life, and doesn’t want to dwell on the past.

Then, a strange young man comes and wants to work with him on a film. The meeting between the two men triggers the first of a series of flashbacks to a period 14 years before, when “Harry” was named Mateo Blanc and was a successful film director.

In the flashbacks, Mateo is working on a movie, and his principal star is Lena, the beautiful mistress of a jealous rich man. The mistress is played beautifully by Penelope Cruz, star of several Almodovar movies, most recently “Volver” (2006).

Pretty soon, we are in the midst of a movie within a movie, a movie that looks very much like Almodovar’s 1988 screwball comedy “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” And Mateo, in the manner of lothario directors like Fellini, begins an explosively hot affair with Lena. The rich businessman suspects the two are up to something, and he begins spying on them in obsessively clever ways.

As the movie proceeds, the plot both thickens and quickens. Almodovar weaves a tangling web of love and malevolence as the focus shifts back and forth between the past and the present.

Style and content are fused. For instance, as in the movies of Michael Powell (“The Red Shoes”) and Douglas Sirk (“Imitation of Life”), the color red is used symbolically, indicating both passion and danger, but only at moments in which the protagonists are truly passionate, or truly in danger. The music swells as the suspense builds, sweeping us along. The cinematography and editing become more intense. The result is the best sort of melodrama, emotionally heightened fiction that captures us because the characters seem so believable and because Almodovar makes sure we are viscerally invested in their fate. In the end, “Broken Embraces” is irresistible.

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.