A couple of weeks ago I went to The Garden Cinema to talk to them about Almodóvar and Penelope Cruz for the cycle of Cruz films they’ll be screening soon. The discussion is a bit chaotic, like all good conversation tends to be, but Abla Kandalaft elegantly puts the reins on when needed. I make one error that I caught when I listened, and that is when I refer to the plot of Bigas Luna’s Golden Balls and say Javier Madeiro marries the boss’ wife instead of his daughter (the exquisite Maria de Madeiros).
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. * JoseArroyo
It’s probably fair to say that Pedro Almodóvar’s films seem to be made specifically for José. It’s in every detail: the locations, eras, sexuality, ways of life, attitudes, class, love of cinema and countless other aspects of Almodóvar’s ouevre speak to José on a deep, intimate level. He’s watched every one of his films time and time again, and he considers Pain and Glory, which he has already seen twice and plans to see again, a masterpiece. Mike doesn’t have anything like such a specific relationship to Almodóvar, and indeed has only seen one other of his films, 2016’s Julieta, which he liked very much – and indeed he likes Pain and Glory just as much… though not quite as much as José.
We discuss how Pain and Glory stands alone but might benefit from being seen in relation to Almodóvar’s ouevre. Several of his regular collaborators appear, including Cecilia Roth, Antonio Banderas, Julieta Serrano and Penélope Cruz; this film, as with The Law of Desire, Broken Embraces and Bad Education, is about a filmmaker; it makes use of art as an unconscious but pointed visual layering and underlying theme; images of characters writing on typewriters or computers show up – this is a film about, amongst other things, writing. Mike brings up the way chance events are used to drive the plot forward and thinks about how they’re contextualised; José praises how fluid Almodóvar’s storytelling is here, effortlessly bringing together disparate timelines and plot strands.
Is this autofiction, as the mother in the film accuses her filmmaker son of so often indulging in? José considers the appearance of Almodóvar’s own mother in his previous films and how so many of his previous films are in fact about mothers (All About My Mother and Volver being the most obvious examples). We discuss the structure of the film, the movement from the relationship with an actor who’s an addict to a previous relationship with an addict, through the performance of a confessional monologue titled Addiction, then a sexual awakening seen from a young boy’s point of view. Representations of Spain in the 50s, memories of the past and a present setting fluidly intermingle. We also consider its themes of illness, ageing and loss, and how it’s a film about cinematic expression, the revelation that half of the diegetic world is in fact a film within a film recontextualising half the story, similar to Bad Education but to different effect here.
It’s a film on which as soon as we finished, José regretted not saying more: The references to Lucrecia Martel’s La niña santa, the clear allusion to Fellini’s 8½, the use of Rosalía to sing the song by the river, the section on films that feature water such as Splendor in the Grass and Niagara. He’s only scratched the surface of a great film.
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The image for the poster of Live Flesh may be understood not only as that which ‘represents’ or sells the film, but also as one that condenses a whole series of meanings and feelings, complex ones, that the film deals with and is about. At its most obvious, it’s a sexual image of two bums next to each other and with a hand on each. But it’s an image in which it’s difficult to distinguish gender. Is it two men, two women, a man and woman? You can’t really be sure until you see the film. But why does the film valorize, prize, image and posterize that representation of gender?
Once you’ve seen the film, you might ask why this man and why this woman? There are three male protagonists in the film: Sancho (José Sancho), David (Javier Bardem), and Victor (Liberto Rabal). Sancho, with his patriarchal need to control, to dictate, constantly associated with a traditional masculinity visualized for us in the film by the cazuelas he’s cooking with, the morzilla and chorizo pictured in the background. He’s a cop too smart or too weak to kill a man directly; a cop who regularly commits crimes at home; a man wearing an apron; a man who belongs with the sour nuns that greeted Victor’s birth (see second-last image) and for whom there’s no room for in the Democratic Spain that Victor’s son is born into and which the film celebrates.
David, rendered impotent partly because he couldn’t stop himself from acting on his desires, couldn’t stop himself from fucking his partner’s wife or start to think about the consequences of his actions and ends up in a wheelchair as a result. He’s now got a wife who’s with him because of guilt, because, as the slow-mo scene of their meeting tells us, he’s an homme fatal she couldn’t resist, both of them imprisoned by an event they were responsible for but for which only an innocent was sent to a physical, material, jail for. The film beautifully images this imprisoning for us at the moment that it happens (see image below) . Even in his wheelchair, David is a model of masculinity, a Paralympian champion; is, as his T-shirt tells us, a 100% animal (see image above); one constantly shown as imprisoned by this fact; constantly shown through bars, meshes, grids.
Victor is the hero of Live Flesh. We know this because he is the only one who’s linked to all the main characters. His mother, played by Penelope Cruz, also symbolizes an era. The film hints that she’s had to leave her village, cast out? Escaped? And arrives already pregnant to Madrid where she has few options; she can’t have many if she’s still selling her body way into her pregnancy. She’s a victim of the sexual morays and rigid gender roles of the old Spain and she’s already dead as the film’s main narrative gets underway, though as we can see through the character of Clara (Angela Molina), those morays and roles persist.
It’s why we’re shown Clara with her peineta and full flamenco regalia (see image above), and why we’re introduced to her through an ornate iron-worked balcony window with her black eyes. There’s no way out for people who try to live out the old rules in the new Spain. It’s why we see that potent image of the two hands, hers and Sancho’s entwined, their wedding bands prominently displayed, but hands and bands smeared in the blood that is the result of the rigidity and violence of their union (see image below).
David is a little different from Sancho but not much. The outline of their shadows pointing a gun as they go up the stairs to Elena’s apartment, the moment which erupts in violence and which sparks the narrative, is initially indistinguishable, as if it’s the shadow of one person rather than two . The camera quickly separates them (see image below) but the shadow of that gun haunts them both. Sancho’s will be the guiding hand that will deprive David of his legs and Victor of his liberty albeit not achieving his initial intent which was murder. David will later try to get Sancho to kill Victor, also not successful but equally damaging as it will result in the death of Sancho and Clara. There is no room in this new Spain for men such as David and he too is cast out, to Miami, just as was Benito, the character Bardem played in Bigas Luna’s Huevos de oro.
The image that signifies the film is half composed of a young man who’s born into a new Spain with a bus pass for life but not much in the way of economic security, but one with a capacity to learn, to grow, to forgive and to love. It’s telling and touching that his idea of revenge is to become the best lover in the world and please the object of his revenge to such an extent that she’ll be destroyed by that loss of pleasure. It’s interesting that the film’s ideal couple, Victor and Elena (Elena is the other half of the composition), the one that he’s been longing for throughout the film but that the film visualizes for us as his mirror image, indistinguishable from him in the act of love, is a foreigner, and not just any foreigner, but a European. Each half of the composition is a mirror of the other but also its inverse and its opposite. Is it too much to read this allegorically? This new Spain, symbolized by this new Spanish man gets rid of all that shackled him in the past to find a better, more productive and fertile union, with his European inverse complement. But is there also a new Spanish woman? The film doesn’t show us who she might be though it’s not outside the bounds of the ideas the film posits, that she’s met a nicer, more sensitive, less dictatorial Swede or Brit or Dane (hard to think of that man in Italy).
There is much more to be said about the meanings that this beautiful image of sex and equality condenses but I would here like to mention only one more as it is arguably one of the film’s greatest achievements; and that is that it is an image of love. Note how in the sex scene the camera moves in creating out of the representation of a physical act of sex an evocation of the abstract concept of love; as the camera moves in, all you begin to see is beautiful undulating shapes. Chavela Vargas — is there such a thing as a hermaphrodite voice, one that evokes both sexes at once, that in evoking both sexes comes across as multi-gendered and full of feeling? – singing ‘Somos’: ‘somos dos seres en uno que amando se mueren, para guarder en secreto lo mucho que quierén/ we are two beings in one that in loving die, to keep secret how much they love’. The camera then returns to the act of sex, she on top, each of them upside-down and then side-by-side before ending with the image with which we began, the two hands caressing those beautiful but indistinguishable bums, before cutting to dawn.
It’s a sexy and romantic image of a genderless couple, an image of sexual equality, an image of the new EEC Spain, an image of love, sex, desire, jouissance and thereby loss. It’s a beautiful image of a great moment in a wonderful film.
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.