The most blatant and self-evident image that has ever passed through a film camera’s aperture is a close up of the human eye. Directors use this image with regularity, and Pedro Almodovar uses it in Broken Embraces. Unsurprisingly, each individual eye looks basically the same, and almost always have the same connotations when appearing in a film; connotations relating to voyeurism, intrusion, lust and mystery. The difference between Almodovar’s new film Broken Embraces and most other films with eyes, is that Almodovar is aiming for cinematic routine and obvious reference. Broken Embraces is all about voyeurism, intrusion, lust and mystery. It is all about the way different people percieve different images and, obviously, about the struggle of the artist. It is an excitingly conventional film.
One convention employed is the storytelling method of time-shifting, which frames the first third of the film. We begin in Madrid in 2008. A blind director, Mateo ( Luis Homar), learns of the death of a rich arch-nemesis named Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), which brings back a set of memories from the early nineties, surrounding the production of Mateo’s film Girls and Suitcases. Then Martel’s son shows up at Mateo’s door, calling himself ‘Ray X’ and proposing a new film he wants to make with the director. But Mateo recognizes the voice, and this in turn brings back memories of Lena (Penelope Cruz), who was Ernesto Martel’s lover, but who ended up having an affair with Mateo, who’s film she was starring in. Almodovar chooses to lock us in to the past for the majority of the film after Mateo sits down with his producer and ex-lover’s son (Tomar Novas), who has just experienced a drug-induced health scare, and is treated to a story of how it all happened; how Martel made his son videotape Mateo and Lena, how he succeeded in destrorying Mateo’s film, and how Mateo tragically lost his sight. The bulk of the film is this story, which occurs in 1994. With this story, Almodovar utilizes the fractured time narrative in a way that does Tarantino’s tired schtick one better; but he wouldn’t have been able to utilize it at all if one didn’t get the sense that the film is a sly disclosure of a mature director looking back on his past, his regrets, and the mysteries of his films.
Broken Embraces ultimately wraps all it’s themes, obsessions and plot turns in to a frenzied meditation on-- what else-- cinema. Running throughout the film is an allusion to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), about a psychopathic cameramen who films girls and then murders them. More subtle references to Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) are also discernable, but the largest film reference is to Almodovar’s own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) on which Mateo’s film Girls and Suitcases is based. If this sounds like a needlessly smarmy amount of cine-literate allusions, then it can’t possibly be, because it comprises large and crucial chunks of the film. But again, the film is, in terms of form, a film of cinematic conventions. This is both for better and for worse; there are steamy sex scenes, a hilarious genre plot within Mateo’s film about drug smuggling, and a typically ironic, yet still unexpected, car crash. There are also several stunningly predictable plot twists and an emphasis on color that makes it look like the film might have been hell for the cinematographer, Rodrigo Pieto. The most interesting choices Almodovar has made in the film, though, are one’s where it is impossible to tell whether they are directorial laziness or directorial trickery. Mateo is blind in the present day, but he never looks blind. Why? And furthermore, why do we still believe his blindness? Early in the film, our first introduction to Lena comes as a flashback, yet not one that can possibly be a memory of Mateo’s. Did Almodovar think we wouldn’t notice, or did he mean to suggest something else about what Mateo knows and remembers? These are several examples of Almodovar’s iffiness, and they are examples that appear in films all across the cinematic spectrum. But after a point, as Almodovar surely knows, intent and mishap make no difference, because it’s all an illusion anyway.
(Pedro Almodovar with Penelope Cruz on the set of Broken Embraces)