Harry Caine (Lluis Homar) has dedicated himself to writing, but our first encounter with him in Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces captures the writer seriously devoted to playing the charming rogue. He seduces a young beauty he picks up on the street, much to the chagrin of his longtime manager Judit Garcia (Blanca Portillo), who along with her son Diego (Tamar Novas) provide vital assistance to Caine.
Caine is blind, we eventually discover, due to an accident that significantly altered the direction of his life, but he survives and thrives through practice and discipline, which he applies to both his craft and his one-off romantic endeavors.
Few directors explore lust and sensuality like Almodovar. He shoots not as an observer but as if actively engaged in the act. He brings heat and passion, yet he also knows and lets us see that sometimes seduction is little more than the pursuit of and desire to lay hands on an object of beauty.
Touch is obviously key to Caine’s existence. It now shapes and defines his experience, his vision.
But 14 years earlier Caine was more than a writer. Before he lost his sight, he was Mateo Blanco, a noted film director engaged in a consuming affair with Lena (Penelope Cruz), the star of his current film and wife of Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), a financial giant and producer of the film. Judit wanders around the vague edges of Blanco’s life even then, as his film editor and likely something more. She and Blanco are certainly intimates, and Judit’s face betrays a world of hurt in the presence of Lena, just as it will in the future, as she confronts Caine’s initial pick-up.
Broken Embraces comes to life in the deliciously tantalizing and rather soapy melodrama of its fractured narrative. So much of it is laid nakedly bare, the beautiful bodies and the lusty intentions, but Almodovar applies film and narrative tricks like sheer fabric to create allure and mystery and a bit of misdirection, although his aim is not to twist the logic as so many current directors and writers might. Instead, Almodovar understands that such knotty thorny edges rip and render the heart asunder, and that is what he wants us to feel.
The expected centerpiece of the affair, the performance of Cruz, never asserts a domineering effect. She is the star of both her husband and Caine/Blanco’s world as she is for Almodovar, but once we settle into the unfolding drama we realize it isn’t about her. In this case, the object of beauty is not the focus.
We are drawn more to the men gazing at that beauty and what they are willing to do to obtain and manipulate it. The prize recedes, as it should, but thanks to the presence of Cruz, it certainly cannot be completely forgotten.
There is a mythic quality to the grand emotion and exquisite parallels in identity and character that unfold here. Yet Almodovar’s story, at its root, matches that of James Cameron’s Avatar and thus should suffer the same slings and arrows. The dialogue might be a step above the gung-ho juvenalia of Cameron’s action heroics, but the basic structure is familiar, especially to anyone who has spent any time camped out on the couch during the daytime soaps.
The world of Broken Embraces turns on the same cliches of powerful men taking advantage of women on the verge and their offspring rising up to repeat the same sad and sordid histories. It is a tale as old as time, but it remains unbroken in its hold on our imaginations. Grade: B