Pedro Almodóvar’s Los Abrazos Rotos (Broken Embraces, 2009) is a moebius strip of film, a cinephilic helix twisting, doubling and reflecting upon itself with recursive bravado. Yet, as imaginative as the film is in concept—and it does make its audience work—it evades any singular pleasure and fractures into narrative shards, each intriguing on their own but not necessarily satisfactory as a whole. Pleasurable enough simply for being an Almodóvar film, it’s nevertheless a minor (though always welcome) contribution to his ongoing oeuvre.
The doubling begins with the opening credits wherein the control camera captures lighting doubles being replaced by Penelope Cruz and Lluís Homar. This establishes the overriding conceit that movies double life, as the two actors have not yet stepped into their roles. When they do, Homar becomes Mateo Blanco, a director who has fallen in love with his lead actress Magdalena “Lena” Rivero (Cruz). But, even before they begin embodying their fictional characters, Cruz and Homar have been slyly configured as fiction for the control camera.
An admitted declaration of love for cinema, Broken Embraces delights in its movie within a movie—a comedy called Girls and Suitcases (in turn, an amusing replication of Almodóvar’s beloved Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), which Blanco is directing—as well as a “making of” documentary that runs a parallel narrative to the original. The “making of” video is being shot by the gay son of producer Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) who has assigned the project to his offspring specifically to keep tabs on his actress-wife Lena, who he jealously (and rightfully) suspects of having an affair with director Blanco. This is easy to understand because Lena/Cruz evokes the beauty of Audrey Hepburn in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina. For those of you who have already lost count, that’s four, arguably even six movies so far (if you count the citations to Sabrina and Women on the Verge).
Add yet another citation to Rossellini’s Viaggo in Italia and keeping count becomes superfluous. Almodóvar has said that—even though from the moment they are finished, all films are the past—he sees “premonitory qualities in them.” Thus, scenes from films within his films are never haphazardly cited and are usually meant to echo the main narrative or offer insight into his characters. For Broken Embraces, Almodóvar selects the specific scene where Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders visit excavations at Pompeii just as the archaeologists uncover the bodies of a man and a woman consumed by lava. (Technically, it’s their absence that is found—their bodies having been burnt to ash—with the shape of their bodies being reconstructed through plaster casting. I’ve actually seen these plaster casts at Pompeii and they’re quite haunting.) In the Rossellini film, Bergman is shaken by the experience of finding these lovers immortalized for thousands of years as it brings into relief the deterioration and pettiness of her own marriage. It bears repeating that the usage of this scene in his film bears agency and is not just “a simple homage or a nod at the spectator.”
Mateo and Lena watch Viaggo in Italia on a television set in a bungalow at Famara on the island of Lanzarote where they have stolen away to pursue their affair. This volcanic association of ash with love is replicated in a scene where Mateo and Lena embrace above the black sand of Golfo Beach. Mateo takes a photograph from the cliffs above the beach and only later realizes that he has captured another couple embracing on the beach below. And, of course, Ernesto Martel, Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano)—nicknamed Ray X just to complicate matters further—is likewise spying on their embraces. His raw “making of” footage is reviewed by his father in a ritual of daily anguish and—since there is no sound—he hires a woman who can read lips to reconstruct what the lovers are saying to each other; yet another form of dubbing as doubling and one Almodóvar used before in Women on the Verge.
It is while Martel is reviewing footage of Lena’s violent argument with his son (when she discovers he is filming her and Mateo), that Lena enters his mansion and finds him and the lip reader in the sitting room melding sound to image. Almodóvar explains: “Lena becomes a duplicate of herself, the woman who from the screen confesses to Martel that she doesn’t love him. At that moment, the ‘making of’, produced by Martel with perverse intentions, turns against him. Lena leaves him doubly, on the screen and from the door of the sitting room, behind him. As a result of Martel’s harassment, the humiliation and pain when Lena leaves him is doubled.” This scene is by far the most numinous of all the doubled images in the film and achieves viscerally what Almodóvar has been gesturing towards throughout the film. It’s a masterfully edited sequence that drives home the film’s narrative thesis. “The plot of Broken Embraces,” Almodóvar specifies in his press notes, “dramatizes the importance of editing, its direct relationship with the director and the fragility of the film if someone gets between the editing and the director.” For Almodóvar, editing is where the cinematic narrative begins.
Believe it or not, all of this is back story to the film’s main narrative thrust which takes place 14 years later, after Mateo loses Lena in a car accident and is himself blinded. No longer able to direct, he withdraws into the pseudonym Harry Caine, which he previously used for scriptwriting credits. In essence, Almodóvar tells us, Mateo Blanco died on Lanzarote with his beloved Lena and all that is left is this other blind creature; this semblance of his former self. Yet another doubling.
Lest you think I am giving away the plot of the film, I assure you that the plot of Broken Embraces—spare as it is—works more as a scaffold upon which Almodóvar drapes his cinephilic preoccupations, including a tip of the hat to the dark erotic triangulations of film noir. The story is simple but in its constant doubling, in its rhymes and repetitions, in its reflections and refractions, the film works more as texture than tale.
Cross-published on Twitch.