"Broken Embraces" is a passionate, perfumed love letter to cinema. Pedro Almodovar's latest movie is positively drunk in its desire for handsome actors and beautiful actresses, gorgeously art-directed sets, suspense, comedy, ironic flashbacks, tragic romance. Like a love-struck youth improvising an aria, his attention bounds from one giddy thought to the next.
His story is a love triangle involving a wealthy old man, his restless mistress and a virile film director, but that's really just the scaffolding on which the director hangs his fancies. The film exists not as a coherent narrative but a parade of swooningly beautiful images.
Penelope Cruz, Almodovar's frequent muse, plays Lena, a corporate secretary with a secret life. Like Catherine Deneuve in "Belle du Jour," she moonlights as a high-toned prostitute. With her Audrey Hepburn reserve and Sophia Loren sensuality, she could have stepped down to earth from a movie screen. Ernesto (Jose Luis Gomez), the man in the corner office, desires her fiercely and she sees advantages to the union. A natural actress, she's skilled at disguising her unhappiness in his opulent clutches. When she dresses for a ball at her mirror, he helps, wreathing her neck with heavy gold jewelry that looks like chains.
Eager for distractions, she pressures her sugar daddy to launch her as a starlet. Director Mateo screen-tests his backer's paramour and falls in love with her as well. He makes her the star of his comedy "Girls and Suitcases." While they film the lighthearted trifle, their off-camera life is a blood-and-thunder melodrama of voyeurism, jealousy and revenge. Film genres collide in the telling of the tale. Ernesto pushes his faithless lover down a sweeping staircase in a sequence that might have come from Hitchcock. The farcical film-within-a-film is rewritten to accommodate a leading lady with her leg in a cast.
Almodovar tells his story out of sequence. Chronology interests him less than voluptuous imagery. We meet Mateo under another name, Harry Caine, the nom de plume he took when he lost his sight and became a screenwriter. He's still a ladies' man, but the lost Lena haunts his memory, and we get the story of their affair in a series of tantalizing flashbacks.
As in "Citizen Kane," multiple witnesses to the story supply their part of the tale. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto uses multiple film stocks to reflect various eras and viewpoints. The effect is elliptical, like a cubist portrait. We see the story from this vantage and that, and it's our task to join the splinters together.
There are villains in the piece, but everyone is defined by a weakness that renders them human. Ernesto truly loves Lena to the point of madness. Mateo is more macho than the aged moneyman but far weaker in worldly terms. We meet Lena as she is losing her father to cancer; shaken, she turns to each man as a strong, protective replacement. Even the second-tier characters have their needs and desires.
Almodovar wants us to hear them all out patiently. He sets up scenes that drive us toward one conclusion about characters, then undercuts our certainty with new information that requires us to reassess. Whose memory is clearest, whose version of events should we trust? Cameras are used to conceal the truth, and to reveal what's hidden. An early sequence that cleverly shows us someone we hadn't known was in a scene shows how framing a shot can obscure the whole truth of a situation.
Almodovar loves such effects. He is as ravenous for movies and their unique magic as the men are for Lena. The discursive story baffled me at times — I suspect he included some characters because he thought the actors were irresistibly cute — but my senses were ravished.