The first images we glimpse in Broken Embraces are difficult to locate in the chronology of its fevered, convoluted narrative. They hover somewhere in the midst of not only the movie but also the movie’s genesis. We see an actress on a film set preparing for another take. Her name, we’ll later learn, is Lena, and she’s played by Penélope Cruz. But these images were taken on the fly, without Cruz’s knowing they would be used in the movie, that she was meant to be performing. So in a sense it’s Cruz herself, not Lena, who we observe in this moment of pure presence pulled loose from the self-consciousness of the actor working for the camera, a stray fragment striving toward some symbiosis of art and reality. It is in any case a captivating entrée to this fourth collaboration between Cruz and writer/director Pedro Almodóvar.
“We are like lovers,” Almodóvar has said of he and Cruz, who decided to be an actress after having seen Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up, Tie me Down (1990) as a teenager. Indeed, Broken Embraces can be read as a love letter from an auteur to his muse. It’s a story told in four parts, encompassing two different periods in the life of its protagonist. Mateo Blanco was a successful director, until one day he decided to make a very Almodóvar-like comedy called Chicas y Maletas and cast as its lead an unknown named Lena, who was smart, gorgeous and possessed a raw talent. But Lena was tethered to a rich, older, fearsomely possessive man named Ernesto who once helped her when she was desperate. Mateo and Lena fall in love and gradually everything goes to hell—Ernesto is the movie’s financier, and he won’t let her go, even if it means destroying the project. Tragedy strikes, Mateo loses both Lena and his sight, and with this double-loss he also abandons his name. So Mateo Blanco is killed and Harry Caine takes his place, just a writer now, not a director, blinded, and thus better equipped to retreat into the shadowy embrace of the past. Until the past catches up with him. Mateo can’t get Lena back, nor can he regain his sight. But Harry Caine can illuminate some lingering mysteries about how it all happened. Turns out he can also finish his movie the way it was intended, which in Almodóvar’s cinema of cinema adoration is some kind of happy ending. In Mateo’s movie, if not in life, Lena can live forever.
It’s fascinating to see Almodóvar play with Cruz’s persona in Broken Embraces, peppering her image with a little Audrey Hepburn, a little Goldie Hawn, a flash of Rita Hayworth in Gilda (46). Yet Lena surpasses references, emerging as a complex and finally terribly moving character, the ostensible femme fatale overwhelmed by her own allure. She’s a woman desired into oblivion, tormented by compromise, crushed when she attempts an escape. Cruz hauntingly embodies this woman slowly being torn apart. I and a gaggle of other writers were able to sit with Cruz and during last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, where Broken Embraces had its North American premiere. More diminutive than I’d imagined, especially after having seen her inhabit the screen so fully in Almodóvar’s Volver (06), Cruz wore a simple floral print dress, pink cardigan, and platform sandals. She sat cross-legged, as if attempting to fill more of her chair. Yet when she spoke it was with a confidence and grace that defied her stature. “I don’t think Lena is weak,” she explained. “She has one challenge after another. She becomes a great actress in life, if not in movies. I see her as three women in one: who she really is you can see briefly when she’s in love; then there’s the character she creates to be with Ernesto; and there’s the character that she plays in Chicas y Maletas. Some days we would go from one to other…”
Some of Cruz’s earliest work was with Almodóvar. In Live Flesh (97) she was a prostitute giving birth on a bus. In All About My Mother (99) she played a nun. At some point she attracted the attention of American filmmakers and appeared in a flurry of American movies, like All the Pretty Horses (00), Vanilla Sky (01), and Sahara (05), yet she was rarely cast imaginatively. She might have become lost in Hollywood, another beautiful face with an exotic accent, typically required to do little more than fulfill a stereotype, arguably not unlike her fellow countryman Antonio Banderas, whose career was also launched with several highly memorable appearances in Almodóvar movies. But Volver changed that. Almodóvar had no difficulty imagining Cruz as more eccentric, more dynamic, more robust, and Cruz got an Oscar nomination. She didn’t win for Volver; she won instead for her supporting role in Vicky Christina Barcelona (08), where she did in fact play a stereotype of the fiery, nosy, lusty Spaniard—though she did it with tremendous verve, thank you very much.
Cruz with Almodóvar
Cruz is grateful for her success, yet seems equally cognizant of the role of luck in navigating the vagaries of the film industry. “The moment Lena meets Mateo and tells him she wants to be an actress—I couldn’t do it without crying,” says Cruz. “I was getting the feeling back of meeting Pedro when I was 17, and I was thinking, ‘What would my life have been had I not been able to share with him that I want to be an actress?’ I had to cry between takes.” Cruz and Almodóvar are close friends, so close that they feel able to read each other’s thoughts. But their camaraderie doesn’t compromise their work ethic. “I feel the same butterflies in my stomach when I’m on the set working with him as with any other director,” Cruz says. “My biggest worry is to have him go home disappointed at the end of our day of shooting. I want him to be happy, to feel that I’m giving him 100%, because he’s given me time after time huge amounts of trust. It’s intimidating because he’s so honest. He’ll tell you if you’re good, he’ll tell you if you’re bad. He’ll tell you in great detail. That’s what’s so addictive about working with him, this honesty.”
Almodóvar’s famous perfectionism and frank criticism had the same effect on Lluís Homar, who played Mateo/Harry. Not only a veteran of Spanish film and TV but a long-established actor and director in Barcelona’s theatre community, Homar had a significant role in Almodóvar’s Bad Education (04), but couldn’t have foreseen the commitment he was to take on with Broken Embraces. Homar also turned up to do publicity during TIFF, an endearing figure clad in red jacket, tight black jeans and cowboy boots, with pale eyes that sparkle in the sunlight. Those eyes spend much of the movie lost in some melancholy inner-vision disguised by Mateo/Harry’s habitual amiability. Homar and Almodóvar spent countless hours with a multitude of blind people to get a sense of Mateo/Harry’s state of being. It was only when they finally met a blind man who didn’t seem blind did Almodóvar tell Homar, “There’s Harry.” “It’s very strange,” Homar said of this model for his character. “He looks you right in your eyes, but he doesn’t see anything.”
In a sense, Mateo/Harry’s blindness helped Homar surrender to Almodóvar’s process. There are key scenes in Broken Embraces where Almodóvar will cast off his dominant shot/reverse shot pattern and let the camera simply glide between two characters in conversation, falling on one or the other in turn, though not necessarily when you might think. When asked about this method Homar shrugged and laughed, admitting that after the first few takes he had to just forget the camera altogether, to be truly blind as it were. Homar never worried about making a wrong choice because he trusted Almodóvar completely to set him straight. “He knows the characters so well,” Homar says. “Even when he says things to you over the course of production, things he just tosses off very casually, you want to run away and find a microphone to record every word. Each sentence or each gesture you’re to perform—he knows exactly what he wants.”
Among the elements that make Broken Embraces an essential chapter in Almodóvar’s career are scenes that literally demonstrate an aspect of his working methods. Toward the movie’s end, 14 years after Chicas y Maletas was released in a mangled version, Mateo is able to re-cut the movie, comparing various takes. Cruz initially thought that the “bad” takes would allow her and her co-stars to indulge in some broad acting, but her director was after something far more suggestive. “It was hard because we thought we could do whatever we want and just make it fun and exaggerate,” recalls Cruz. “But Pedro wanted something so subtle. I think that’s the point. If you see a scene play out, and then you see the same scene just two degrees lower or higher… it’s like music, if it’s just a little bit off you don’t feel the connection. It’s hard to explain what it is.”
Hard to explain yet unmistakable when you see it work. Broken Embraces is a somewhat wordy movie by Almodóvar’s usual standards, yet it still contains images so rich as to seem almost indescribable. There’s a moment when Harry approaches his television. On screen is the last image ever filmed of he and Lena together. He has the image slowed down so that each frame is frozen for a moment. He places his hands on the screen, fingers spread, as though able to touch what’s long gone, to embrace a faded memory through the intangible magic of the moving image. It may just be the most personal image Almodóvar has produced.