In his long career, Pedro Almodóvar has fearlessly mixed genres and moods within films—sometimes to great effect, sometimes capriciously. His latest, Broken Embraces, finds Almodóvar at the top of his form: With extraordinary grace, he has wrapped a comedy inside a film noir inside a story of forgiveness.
It takes a moment to realize that writer Harry Caine (Lluis Homar) is blind. After Almodóvar lets us in on this fact in a wonderfully salacious scene, we see the mundane life of a middle-age writer and the people in his orbit. There is his devoted literary agent, Judit (Blanca Portillo), and her son, a DJ with his own literary aspirations, Diego (Tamar Novas).
We are also shown a newspaper obituary of a wealthy, powerful businessman, Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gomez). The film, which has a contemporary setting, then shifts back in time to the early 1990s. We see Martel at the height of his power, and are introduced to one of his assistants, Lena (Penélope Cruz, never photographed more glamorously). It’s clear that he lusts for her, and she wants nothing to do with him. Circumstances, however, result in Lena becoming obligated to her boss—and it is rarely pleasant to be under obligation to the wealthy and powerful.
Eventually, it is revealed that Harry used to go by a different name; that he used to be a film director; that he was directing a film starring Lena, and they became involved; and that it all ended horribly.
Almodóvar has a different visual scheme for each story he tells. The present is light and airy, but remarkably colorless; the past is dark and sleek, with dramatic colors. The film within the film, Girls and Suitcases, is Almodóvar’s Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in disguise, and revels in that movie’s outrageous color palette and violent slapstick.
The film has a lot of fun with scenes relating to the movie business. (There’s a story pitch for a vampire series that sends up the current horror mania—and actually sounds more interesting than any of the recent vampire flicks.) And it has moments of utter terror, as the noir plot twists into a tangle of obssession and violence.
The shifts in tone are startling, but pay off beautifully. Broken Embraces presents us with acts of pure evil, yet ends on a hopeful note—a small portion of redemption that’s well-earned.