‘Broken Embraces’ – Movie Review

Critics go apeshit over Almodóvar. As one of the canonised contemporary directors, a darling of the arthouse set, he begins each new film with a surplus of critical credit points. No surprise, then, that there are some raves for Broken Embraces. Whack on a genius label and many will see genius regardless of the product. The Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome is in there, but so too, I think, is a fear among critics of showing up as less than discerning. Gotta preserve yer status as informed and sophisticated film buffs, dontcha?

All very liberating for someone like me, who harbours no such pretensions. I did some film history at uni, and have retained a waxing and waning interest in cinema of all sorts over a lot of years (waxing at the moment, though not often lyrical) – but I wouldn’t call myself a buff. I don’t have a photographic memory for actors (or even much interest in most of them), notice only obvious differences between directorial styles, have no more than a basic knowledge of cinematographic technique and terminology, and forget way more movies than I remember. Oh, and I have never managed to watch Citizen Kane all the way through without nodding off.

Funny, really, that I have no qualms admitting something like that, yet fancy myself as a discerning reader of literature and music lover of taste – and must confess to a degree of snobbery in both areas that is strangely absent in my approach to film.

Privileged, then, aren’t you, that you are in the presence of such critical purity here – this, I suppose, accounts for the vast and growing following I am gathering with my film reviews (as is evidenced by the long and winding trails of comments that attach to each humble but devastatingly astute offering within hours of uploading). Sigh…

You knew what was coming. Yeah, I’m not crazy on Broken Embraces.

It starts promisingly enough, with a riveting, sexually charged scene, in which the lead character, blind middle-aged screenwriter “Harry Caine” (Lluís Homar) charms the pants (and first the top, thankfully) off a spunky young woman whom he has invited into his apartment after she’d assisted him in the street. O these Euros – dear God, we give thanks.

I found myself growing ever less grateful as the film progressed, however, as it became apparent that this was to be yet another film within a film, an exploration of the film-making process and of the construction of narrative blah blah. I am so sick of this meta shit! It’s old. Tired. Not clever any more. Can’t we put postmodernism, now surely in its dotage, out of its misery ferchissake? Euthanase the bastard!

To be fair, Almodóvar has always been into this self-reflexive stuff; he’s not a bandwagon jumper. But strewth, when is enough enough?

Well, it was enough for me a lotta years ago. I like a good story, featuring vibrant characters that “live”, that you care about because they are playing for high emotional stakes. I want to be absorbed and moved, and if I’m not I lose interest. Laying bare the narrative as a construct, celebrating self-consciousness, alluding to other works and all that guff distances the viewer and inhibits the sort of immersion I’m after – and so it does in Broken Embraces. While imposing distance on an audience like this is sometimes the intention of the director, I doubt that is so in this case.

I’m not going to give a synopsis. If you want to know what the story’s about have a look at this Wikipedia link. Suffice it to say that it’s a tale of love and lust, jealousy and revenge – and as such, is curiously light on passion!

Is it the actors? I don’t think so, although there’s a perfunctory feel about some of the performances, most notably Homar’s. Penelope Cruz is as magnetic as ever, but if I remember her in this at all, it will be for the phoaar factor, not her acting. Rubén Ochandiano does creepy well as Ray X, the voyeuristic and rather cartoonish gay son of sleazebag financier Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez). The rest are competent. There are no standouts.

The denouement arrives in the form of an extended narration by Harry Caine’s personal assistant, Judit (Blanca Portillo), who fesses up to some transgressions and secrets she has been sitting on for many years. Clumsy and tired as this narration device is, even less excusable is the fact that we are not let in on any credible motivation for Judit’s coming clean.

The big issue for me, though, is that there is an emptiness about this film, a sense that Almodóvar has caught himself up in his own cleverness, given in to self-indulgence, and quite literally, lost the plot. Sure, the movie is beautifully shot, the craftsmanship superb, but virtuosity of technique doesn’t save it.

Essentially, this is a soulless creation, destined to be forgotten by all but the staunchest Almodóvar fans – and, of course, earnest critics who have something personal invested in retaining an authoritative store of minutiae on all the ‘important’ directors.

For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives

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