No working director plays with conventions of genre as well as Pedro Almodóvar. No matter which genre he is sending up, he is always capable of putting his own twist on it, making his films both glaringly auteuristic and, if not a bit dark at times, unashamedly commercial. His art-house sensibilities are candy for cinephiles but his stories are as thrilling or emotional as the respectable Hollywood fare that casual movie-goers lose themselves in. Whether he’s making a mystery, a melodrama, or a comedy, Almodóvar has always been on the good side of critics and audiences alike.
In 2009’s Broken Embraces, Almodóvar meta-textually comments on his own love of film, and we can see his favorite films, genres, and directors on the verge of bursting out, but it’s also a suspenseful drama from start to finish. The film jumps through time, telling the story of screenwriter Mateo Blanco/Harry Caine and his relationship with the recently deceased Ernesto Mantel and Magdalena Rivas (Penelope Cruz), the woman they both loved. Caine is blind, so he relies heavily on his agent Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas), and it’s Diego he recounts his story to after a visit from Mantel’s son brings back memories. Most of the film takes place in flashback, so we know that Blanco must have a reason for choosing to live only as Caine in the present, just as we know he was not always blind. As the film jumps back and forth in time, we see an intricate mystery piece itself together, and we see that the three, screenwriter/director, producer, and actress, are all united by their work on the same movie.
It’s a soap-opera, complete with pushes down the stairs and adultery. It’s a melodrama, complete with female sacrifice and masochism resulting from attempts to empower oneself. And it’s a mystery, too; most characters have multiple names and the question of how things got to the weird and intentionally under-explained present hangs over the story at all times. But it’s also Almodóvar’s love letter to the cinema. Beyond tying the three lives together by placing them all within Blanco’s film, Almodóvar’s own film is inflected with neo-noir. High contrast lighting makes his palette of bright colors especially noticeable and concentrated, but an inclination for angular shots make a point of the shadows and makes the lavish sets both pop out and disappear into the shadows. When a character is rattling off movies on a shelf, things like Fanny & Alexander, 8 ½, Elevator to the Gallows, we get a taste of Almodóvar’s own preferences. Most importantly, if the last line of the film is a cheeky poke at audience demands, it’s also a declaration of cinema’s healing powers, a denouement that makes clear that Almodóvar is always consciously aware of his subtext and genres. He’s not just taking what he learned from Sirk and Hitchcock here; he’s making it his own and quietly building a thesis to rise out from underneath it.
All that, of course, would not mean half as much if there wasn’t material to convince us with in the first place. But every turn the story takes is an engaging one. Thanks to a great performance by Penelope Cruz, always disguising and faking feelings, inhabiting her character in the film within the film, it’s also too character-driven to call a soap or melodrama, and yet the twists always come when the stakes are the highest, and the noir look and brooding strings make threat ooze out of every shot, even the brightest of the bunch. It’s a thrill from start to finish, and the opening half-hour switches often between the two timelines, announcing that the audience will have to be on their toes to get the most out of it. That’s the big thing about Broken Embraces; it’s smart both as a thriller and as a love letter to the cinema, so it’s a ride worth taking for everyone.