Broken Embraces (Abrazos rotos), the 17th film by Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodovar, folds and folds into itself until there’s practically no movie left. Almodovar has always been fearless at mixing genres and tones, but with this gorgeously melodramatic ode to cinema, the filmmaker comes dangerously close to losing himself inside his celluloid dreams — and leaving the audience behind.
Even less-than-stellar Almodovar, however, offers countless irresistible pleasures. Chief among them in Broken Embraces is Penelope Cruz, the director’s main muse for more than a decade, who is never more captivating or alluring than when working with Almodovar (he sees her like no other director does).
In Broken Embraces, Cruz plays Lena, a reluctant call girl who takes up acting on a whim and falls in love with her director Mateo (Lluis Homar). This does not sit well with Lena’s sugar daddy, Ernesto (Jose Luis Gomez), who also happens to be the film’s financier. Ernesto orders his son (Ruben Ochandiano) to secretly videotape the goings-on on the movie set — a wacky comedy that is an obvious (and very funny) ode to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
The film-within-a-film structure is echoed throughout Broken Embraces by the duality of the characters, most of whom lead two lives (some of them even have two names). But all the narrative mirroring becomes distracting. In his most formal and direct ode to the art of filmmaking, Almodovar experiments with structure and narrative at the cost of melancholy, longing and desire — the emotional makeup that forms his best films.
A peerless craftsman, Almodovar continues to toy with color and framing to convey meaning — rarely has red been more symbolic than it is here — and from a technical standpoint, Broken Embraces is never less than enthralling. But the movie is also curiously remote and distant, an elaborate construction of flashbacks, reveries and cinematic odes that is elegant, intriguing and ultimately much too cerebral.
Cast: Penelope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Jose Luis Gomez, Blanca Portillo, Lola Duenas, Ruben Ochandiano, Tamar Novas, Kira Miro, Chus Lampreave.
Writer-director: Pedro Almodovar.
Producer: Esther Garcia.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 128 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Regal South Beach; in Palm Beach: Shadowood.