By Richard von Busack
A sleek, twisty mystery, illuminated by the stunning Penélope Cruz, the new Pedro Almodovar Broken Embraces is also a sprawler. The James M. Cain–style plot involves a blind film director from Madrid, most active in the 1990s (the balding but virile Lluis Homar). After losing his sight, the filmmaker took the ballsy new name “Harry Caine” and became a writer. Caine is doted on by Judit (Blanca Portillo), a mannish female assistant with whom he has some kind of past. News of the death of a corrupt tycoon sends Caine back to confront unfinished business—to retrieve the moment 16 years previously where he lost both love and sight.
Broken Embraces’ well-engineered reveries over classic film are heightened by Almodovar’s seriocomic additions. The dead tycoon in question, a cuckolded millionaire named Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez) is apparently modeled on Everett Sloane’s character in The Lady From Shanghai. This dangerous man collects pop art, and so his dining room is full of giant Warholesque canvases of rifles and guns. In a joke The Simpsons should steal for Mr. Burns, he keeps a framed portrait of one of his pet Dobermans on the window behind his desk.
Martel was also the producer of the last film Caine made, and the wealthy man unwillingly shared the love of Caine’s life. Lena, known as Magdalena, was an actress, secretary and part-time prostitute who took as her working-girl name Severine (a nod to Belle de Jour). She, of course, is played by Cruz. No one but Almodovar knows how to make Cruz really fascinating. She acts out a regular scene we used to see in ’60s movies, an auditioning actress trying on wigs. We see this woman’s modes of glamour. Here are the curves of Sophia Loren, the frailty of Audrey Hepburn; in a turned-headed reveal, like that famous moment in Gilda, Cruz blazes the too-incandescent smile of Rita Hayworth. Capped with a tousled platinum wig, Cruz evinces something of Lana Turner in her mankiller parts. The spirits summoned up here aren’t travestied; they’re worshipped. Do we feel for Lena? The film is all a bit too stylized for that. She’s such an imago it’s hard to think of her as a character, despite the moments of love, anger and regret that Cruz acts out.
In the press notes, Almodovar comments about the last shot before Broken Embraces’ coda. In it, a viewer reaches into the blurred, scrambled pixels of a video screen, trying to touch the untouchable past. Having just hit age 60, the Spanish director seems to have gone valedictorian. Something comes along like Avatar or Transformers 2, and the world trumpets it as a new stage of cinema. If cinema means—in your estimation—something 90 minutes long with three-point lighting, starring a couple of actors hugging and kissing and with a gold-wreathed lion roaring at the beginning, all that inescapable hype about the new is depressing. Imagine how depressed you’d be if you were one dedicated classicist of a film director—then Almodovar’s act of raving cinephilia makes all the more sense.