My original review of Broken Embraces as published in Sight and Sound in 2009:
Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces is the work of a master film-maker who has lost control of his material. It’s an undisciplined and occasionally self-indulgent work: entire monologues that are meant to be dramatic culminations end up defeating the actors with the sheer amount of unnecessary plot they are forced to recount; the incessant voiceover narration by the central character Mateo – a former movie director who, now blind, writes screenplays under the pen name Harry Caine – while permissible for the noir genre the film stakes a claim to, is excessive in amount and deficient in tone, telling what’s happening but failing to communicate the feelings associated with these events. The film-within-the-film Chicas y maletas (Chick and Suitcases) is a sad mistake, even if the concept behind it – how fragile an art film is, how editing can reduce it from greatness to trash – is an interesting one. It’s clear, moreover, that it’s a reworking of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown(1988): to use one of the greatest comedies of the 20th century as source material for Mateo’s film maudit shows an uncharacteristic lack of judgement on Almodóvar’s part. When Mateo/ Harry, his agent Judit and her son Diego look at the director’s cut of Chicas y maletas and say, “It’s marvellous,” how can an authence familiar with Women on the Verge think anything other than, no, it’s not?
Those who require neatness, order, rigour and balance in their art will therefore find Broken Embraces a disappointment. But those with a more open disposition will find much not only to enjoy but to treasure – for example, when Mateo first sees Lena and we gasp right along with him at the beauty of Penélope Cruz and the beauty with which Almodóvar has shown it to us. It’s a moment to rank alongside Rita Hayworth’s expression when she says, “Who, me?” in Gilda (1946), or Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift’s kiss in A Place in the Sun (1951). And when Diego asks Mateo/Harry, who is feeling very down, what DVD would give him a little lift, he replies: “I’d like to hear the sound of Jeanne Moreau’s voice.” It’s something anyone who knows and loves cinema will understand.
Broken Embraces is, in fact, a cinephile’s dream of a movie. Penélope Cruz’s character is called Lena for a reason: Marlene Dietrich played Concha, the Spanish temptress who bewitches and destroys rich and powerful older men, in Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman (1935). The work was based on Pierre Louÿs’ novel La Femme et le Pantin, which Julien Duvivier turned into a film with Brigitte Bardot in 1959 and which Buñuel used as source material for That Obscure Object of Desire in 1977. Angela Molina, here cast as Lena’s mother, played the earthy Conchita (as opposed to the more ethereal one played by Carole Bouquet) for Buñuel. Thus Lena here is the daughter of both Dietrich and Molina (and perhaps even Bardot), and of the cinematic creations of von Sternberg and Buñuel. Lena’s nom de plume, Séverine, is another nod to Buñuel, this time the character played by Catherine Deneuve in Belle de jour (1967). The film is full of such references, refracting a kaleidoscope of connections.
I mention them not to show what a good student of cinema Almodovar is (though there are few directors better), but because such an engagement with cinephilia is crucial to a film that is an extended thesis on cinema itself: the pre-credit sequence is made up of ‘stolen’ footage taken by the video camera that film-makers attach to the normal camera to see takes during and immediately after shooting; the first shot we see after the credit sequence is a light coming through a window and a turning page reflected in an eye – an image condensing a century of debate on cinema as a window on the world versus cinema as spectacular storytelling. Lena breaks up with her older lover Ernesto by speaking the words she is uttering in the silent footage he is watching – in effect a live dubbing of oneself. The film offers a whole treatise on the importance of editing, both through its plot and via what we are shown of the film-within-the-film. When we see an excerpt from Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (1954), it’s not mere padding or empty quotation, it’s both source of, and comment on, one of Broken Embraces’ central themes (not to mention its title).
If Broken Embraces is sure to interest cinephiles, it will also be indispensable to Almodóvar fans. Aside from its take on Women on the Verge, it is a complement genetically to Bad Education (2004) and perhaps even Live Flesh (1997), and a continuation of themes explored in All about My Mother(1999). The forgiveness of absent fathers is a key, almost a structuring theme, in the film.
Broken Embraces offers evidence too of Almodóvar’s familiar fascination with structure (Lena sells herself for her father; Judit, in a different way, for her son). Cruz and Molina are fabulous. Visually, the director is working with a new cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto; it’s a departure (grainier, darker, less glossy than his work with José Luis Alcaine) and a potentially fruitful one for future development. However, the film lacks discipline in paring the unnecessary, and Almodóvar, with his insistence on forcing the characters to say, say again and say some more, seems to have lost sight of dramatising and showing. After his recent run of films (All about My Mother and 2002’s Talk to Her, at least, are masterpieces), anything less than great would be considered a disappointment. But as failures go, Broken Embraces is a great one. * Jose Arroyo
Amodóvar recognised the mystery and enchantment of Jeanne Moreau’s voice and shared his appreciation of it in this moment of cinephilia from Broken Embraces.
Dario Llinares and I discuss Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces during the mini-retrospective hosted by Curzon Cinemas in August here: http://www.cinematologists.com/podcastarchive/2016/8/24/episode-29b-broken-embraces.
Seeing Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown again earlier this week made me think that, whilst each Almodóvar film can be enjoyed in and of itself on first viewing, his films become richer seen as part of the process in the unfolding of his ouvre. I suppose this can be said of any great director and was certainly a basic precept behind the auteur ‘theory’. However, with Almodóvar, its different, or perhaps just more intensely so, in that it’s not just a coherent style or recurring themes but a kind of unfolding of ideas, situations and themes from film to film in a style that seems the same in spirit but is the product of a much greater command of the medium as the oeuvre progresses. For example, one can see how the nugget of an idea in one film (Tina playing Cocteau’s ‘La voix humaine’ on stage in Law of Desire  becomes the basis of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown , the filming of which becomes an integral plot point in Broken Embraces ).
In looking at Almodóvar’s work, this unfolding comes to seem richer still if these inter-connected elements are then linked to a conscious articulation of the references they were employed to evoke. The idea is to see Almodóvar’s films in the fullness of their diachrony but also within their synchronic relations. Each film could be seen as a matrix in which not all the dots need to be joined together to get pleasure or meaning. They could exist as relational planes, one beyond the other but also circling within a cybernetic type of space in which the viewer can at best access only certain elements. Yet the desire to see them in their fullness is an enriching drive because there are always pleasures and meanings to be had behind and around the view on overt display by exploring relations, echoes, references, the little bytes of meaning, colour and design the bricoleur that is Almodóvar utilised in the overall design of the image to achieve its dramatic intent.
As an example of this unfolding in Almodóvar’s work let’s linger over Carmen Maura in Women. Up to that point she’d appeared in all of Almodóvar’s features bar Labyrinth of Passion (thought it might be worth noting that that film, like Women, has a similar race to the airport as the film’s finale). In Law of Desire she played Tina, a trans-sexual, who gets the lead in Cocteau’s La Voix humaine, and triumphs nightly onstage in a female monologue of a woman speaking to her invisible and inaudible lover who is leaving her to marry another woman.
This scene of Maura as Tina onstage as the protagonist of La Voix humaine, a great part that had already been enacted by great actresses and stars on-stage (Berthe Bovy), on vinyl (Hildegard Knef, Simone Signoret) and on-screen (Anna Magnani in L’Amore (Italy, 1948) a film directed by Rossellini which included Cocteau’s ‘La Voix humaine’ and also Federico Fellini’s ‘Il Miracolo’), then becomes the germ of the idea for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It’s a tour-de-force part for, to use Kenneth Tynan’s term, a ‘high-definitio’ performer — one can see why Poulenc turned Cocteau’s play into a one-act opera, in which form it continues to be staged as a showcase vehicle for a long line-up of illustrious opera divas, Lesley Garrett being but a recent example.
In Women, Carmen Maura plays Pepa, constantly too late to say to her ex-lover what she needs to tell him; he always having left just as she’s arriving; she in contact only with his recorded voice, smooth, professional. Carmen playing Pepa in a melodramatic screwball becomes Penelope Cruz playing Pepa but in the original script idea for Women on the Verge entitled Chicas Y Maletas (‘Chicks and Suitcases ‘or ‘Gals and Suitcases’, neither translation quite conveys that combination of girly-ness and hipness that ‘Chicas’ does – the logical equivalent something like a ‘cool chick’ to me always seems a moniker with an implied male designator or addressee, whereas ‘chicas’ has a communal female feel, a term used by women within a female context but to refer to youthful behavior that might border on the slightly transgressive) but this time in a film within a film composed within the porous, billowing fog of noir.
In Broken Embraces, Penelope Cruz is playing the Carmen Maura role. Maura had played Cruz’s mom in Volver. Pe is thus the Pepa once played by the actress who was to play her mom. But Penelope Cruz in Broken Embraces is not just a version of Pepa, she is also and simultaneously a version of Audrey Hepburn, and Dietrich, and a film noir heroine, and an ideal movie star.
‘Chicas y Maletas’, Broken Embraces’ version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, gets barbarically destroyed in the initial edit by the industrialist villain in Broken Embraces. But at the end of that film, the remaining protagonists hover around a steenbeck looking at a restored section of ‘Girls and Suitcases’, and declare it wondrous and marvellous. Personally, I found it to be a pale, thin, sitcom imitation of the masterpiece that is Women.
As I was watching Women on the Verge there were moments when I was thinking simultaneously back to Law of Desire or Labyrinth of Passion and forwards onto Broken Embraces, and on different planes in relation to Magnani and Signoret, and also in relation to a whole history of female stardom in a variety of guises that seemed to somehow foreground glamour and film noir, all without losing sight of that wonderful comic timing, and still being moved by Maura, and still admiring the 80’s chic of it all. And there were many other moments in the film where this way of looking simultaneously diachronically but also within an extraordinary range of synchronic relations resulted in bursts of all kinds of pleasure.