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Broken Embraces

Missing Some Pieces

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Broken Embraces, the latest film from prolific Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar (Talk to Her, All About My Mother, Volver) revisits his preoccupations with romantic obsession (straight and gay), gender roles, femme fatales, moviemaking, film history, and soap opera conventions.

Reuniting with his latest muse Penélope Cruz, Almodóvar delivers an unfocused, unengaging film likely to please only his diehard fans. Despite garnering a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film (Almodóvar's sixth nomination), Broken Embraces falls short of Almodóvar’s better films and their ability to be consistently engrossing, emotionally engaging, and all-around entertaining.

Broken Embraces centers on Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), a one-time filmmaker who, after a car accident fourteen years later, lost his sight. He still works in the film industry, writing scripts for other directors. Caine’s longtime agent and production manager, Judit García (Blanca Portillo), and her twenty-something son, Diego (Tamar Novas), a part-time DJ, are the closet he has to a family. Judit keeps him busy working on scripts, Diego as his sounding board and collaborator. A lucrative financial proposition presents itself in the form of Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano), a wealthy man willing to self-finance his filmmaking projects, beginning with a screenplay.

Ray, of course, isn’t who he seems, but Ray’s presence isn’t what causes Caine to revisit his troubled, tragic past. It’s the death of Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), a wealthy businessman, which sends Caine and Broken Embraces into flashback mode — Madrid in 1992 to be exact. Searching for a producer to finance his latest project, Women and Suitcases (“Chicas y Maletas”) Caine finds Martel. Semi-eager to please his producer, Caine auditions Martel’s mistress, Lena (Penélope Cruz, working with Almodóvar for the fourth time), for a role in his film. Caine finds his lead, but he also falls in love with Lena, setting off a chain of events that lead inexorably into noir-inflected tragedy.

Broken Embraces contains Almodóvar’s familiar melodramatic, and by now predictable, plot twists and turns, which suggests a filmmaker meeting his yearly quota rather than actually attempting to explore new subject matter or familiar material from an unfamiliar perspective.

Almodóvar also relies on flashbacks to tie the past and the present together, but he fails to make either storyline sufficiently compelling to fill out the film’s 129-minute running time or use of visual and/or aural cues to suggest deeper thematic and character connections. Unlike noir, where flashbacks are usually tied to a single character’s limited point-of-view, the flashbacks in Broken Embraces don’t belong to any one character. They’re flashbacks from an unknown narrator standing outside of events.

Almodóvar revisits well-trod metafictional territory, using the film-within-a-film to remind audiences of the Academy Award-nominated Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and when he’s exhausted that device’s slim potential, he slips into tangential movie reference in background posters, dialogue, costumes and hair styles (Cruz as Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe) — an overt call-out to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, presumably to obtain a favorable response from the cineastes in the audience. Unfortunately, Almodóvar misjudged how forgiving cineastes or even casual movie fans can be when confronted with an uninspired, unimaginative effort like Broken Embraces.

Like Woody Allen and his late-career descent into mediocrity, Almodóvar is in desperate need of new subject matter, a new, fresh approach, and maybe even new collaborators — including a new muse since Cruz doesn’t seem be helping anymore. If not, Almodóvar will continue his slide into irrelevancy as a filmmaker.