I’ve been waiting a long time to see Pedro Almodovar’s most recent film (Almodovar’s films are always so gorgeous that I try to catch them in the cinema, but I missed this one while in transition between continents). Almodovar is one of my favourite European directors and has made a couple of my top 100 films of the past decade (Talk to Her and Volver), so I was looking forward to this, perhaps a little too much (i.e. the ever-dangerous high expectations).
The opening scene immediately put me on the defensive and my expectations did not take long to begin their fall. In that opening scene, which takes place in Madrid, a middle-aged blind man seduces, and has sex with, a beautiful young woman whom he just met when she helped him cross the street in front of his home. Anyone see problems with this? Perhaps if I had known exactly how pervasive the film’s undercurrent of dark humour was supposed to be, my initial response of disgust would have been tempered, but even after the film was over, I didn’t know whether Broken Embraces was supposed to be a dark comedy or a drama or a Hitchcock-like thriller.
The blind man is Mateo, a film director, and as we get to know Mateo (played very well by Lluis Homar) we realize that he is not only literally blind, he is also blind to the truth behind many pieces of his past, good pieces and tragic pieces (much of the film takes place in the past). So one assumes Almodovar is making a number of points in the film with his choice of a blind protagonist who happens to be a film director. Perhaps he is saying that directors like himself are somewhat blind to what they are making until their film is finished and/or perhaps he is saying that we are all easily blinded to the truth of what is happening around us. These are interesting things to consider and make Broken Embraces sound like a profound work. And maybe it is.
Broken Embraces certainly has a lot going for it. As already mentioned, Almodovar’s films are always beautiful to watch, full of rich primary colours and old-fashioned cinematography. And the acting is superb. Penelope Cruz, as Mateo’s lover (and perhaps the film’s true protagonist) does a great job, as she usually does for Almodovar. And Blanca Portilla as Judit, Mateo’s long-time friend and assistant, is even better. And the film is full of wonderful scenes.
So what’s the problem? Well, for one thing, the whole does not feel as satisfying as the individual parts. The plot is melodramatic in a way that can only be excused by seeing Broken Embraces as primarily a comedy. And perhaps that is what it is and I should have been laughing uproariously at the melodrama instead of grimacing. Or maybe it’s a cultural thing and people in Spain view the film differently. Whichever, for me there was a superficial feel to the film that prevented the profound ideas from taking root.
I reacted to Almodovar’s critically-acclaimed All About My Mother in a similar way, so maybe it’s a matter of taste and personality. Of course, I am not saying Broken Embraces is a bad film or that I didn’t enjoy watching it. Far from it. I found it very entertaining and am giving it a solid ***+. I just wish it had met or even exceeded my expectations. My mug is up.