The employment of façades is a key motif in Broken Embraces, and an unintentionally apt one at that, given that Pedro Almodóvar’s latest encases its old-hat tropes under a superficially stunning veneer. After the poignant genre mix-and-matching of Volver, such shallowness is more than a tad dispiriting, with his melodramatic tale of love, betrayal, role-playing, and the cinema’s ever-present gaze proving at once formally gorgeous and inescapably thin. Through the flashback-reliant tale of one man’s act of revelatory reflection, Almodóvar revisits countless pet themes—not least of which is the tangled, prime bond between parent and child, as well as director and actress—in a manner that comes across as more perfunctory than inspired, his story’s tonal and temporal shifts generally sluggish, stale imitations of those found in his prior works. Aside from rare moments when the florid, the suspenseful, and the heartfelt merge in prototypically garish Almodóvar flourishes, the film operates as a peek inside the auteur’s recycling bin, a place dedicated primarily to the ceaseless, reverent celebration of his favorite collaborator, Penélope Cruz.
Or should I say simply Cruz’s soft face, her curvaceous frame, and her overflowing chest? All three receive the lion’s share of Broken Embrace’s love and attention, with particular TLC lavished on the last, a buxom object of desire that intermittently commands the spotlight to the point of blotting out all other concerns. This focus on Cruz’s physical splendor is in tune with a tale about characters infatuated with appearances—specifically, with concealing and/or shunning their true selves beneath alternate-personality guises. Too often, however, Almodóvar’s skin-deep approach isn’t designed to mirror the characters’ games of hide-and-seek but, instead, is simply a manifestation of his own preference for stylish beauty over profundity of emotion or ideas. Via his tale of a blind screenwriter named Harry Caine (Lluís Homar) who, with the help of his manager Jutid (Blanca Portillo) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas), looks back on his tragic affair with former whore/actress Lena (Cruz), the mistress of now-deceased business mogul Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), Almodóvar creates a shifting-identity tapestry outwardly similar to that of Bad Education. Yet while the overripe noir song remains the same, the feeling’s mostly wrong this time around.
It turns out that Harry was originally Mateo, a successful film director, a duality that’s also present in Lena’s attempts to “play” Ernesto’s doting lover, Ernesto’s gay son Ernesto Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano) operating under the pseudonym Ray X, and the repeated sight of Cruz donning different Hepburn-esque wigs, makeup, and expressions. Surface and reality remain engaged in a constant dance, one embellished by the director’s expertly composed, vibrantly colorful aesthetic. Into this hyperreal mix come cinematic homages and meta gestures as well, but unlike before, Almodóvar’s allusions are halfhearted, content to lend the material some past-is-present-is-future shading while avoiding direct contact with heady passions. Douglas Sirk and Jules Dassin are casually referenced and Peeping Tom is also suggested through the habitually filming Ernesto Jr. Such nods, however, are transparent name-checks rather than piercing elements of a full-bodied meditation on the relationship between artist and art, between form and content, a tepidness epitomized by the fact that stalkerazzi filmmaker Ernesto Jr. is, unlike his homicidal Powell-Pressburger ancestor, not a cine-murderer but merely a passive observer.
Content to spin his wheels rather than plumb depths, Almodóvar reduces Broken Embraces into a fashion-spread showcase for his lovely, mutable muse. Cruz is more than happy to oblige, in different instances exuding playfulness, sensuality, fury, and despair with the type of larger-than-life old-Hollywood regality that’s otherwise sorely lacking from the unnecessarily intricate proceedings. A sharp transition from Cruz miserably puking in a bathroom, mascara running and underwear slightly askew, to that of her beaming around a slightly ajar door, her face as radiant as a summer’s day, is emblematic of not only the film’s fixation on interior-exterior dynamics but of its unswerving idolizing of Cruz the movie star. Alas, despite attempts to embody Lena with a tumultuous, wounded inner life, the actress is largely relegated to being a ravishing mannequin whose true thoughts and feelings remain a mystery—even, it often seems, to Almodóvar himself. Which is why it’s the sight of Harry’s hand on a movie screen projecting an old freeze-frame shot of him kissing Lena that ultimately defines the detached, hollow Broken Embraces, a moment in which the longing to connect with one’s own images proves hopeless.