Penelope Cruz, in 'Broken Embraces'

Dir. Pedro Almodóvar
(2009, R, 127 min)
★ ★ ★

At first I loved the melodramatic flamboyance of Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces, but then not as much. Two hours is a long time to hold such a high level of dramatic urgency; I think the characters must get tired. Take Judit, a talent agent played by Blanca Portillo, who spends the entire running time with the kind of intense expression that’s usually accompanied by a suspense chord on a soap opera. She’s keeping a lot of secrets, and at first it’s exciting to find out the meaning behind her dread, until finally we wish she’d get them all out already.

The story involves dual identities. It opens with Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), who up until an accident that took his eyesight fourteen years ago was a director named Mateo Blanco. He originally developed “Harry Caine” as a nom de plume; when we hear the whole story of why he dropped his real name, we come to understand his “Harry Caine” persona as a state of suspended grief over his losses of love and cinema; without his eyes, the director in him is dead.

Also living a dual life of sorts is Magdalena (Penélope Cruz), who we see in flashbacks to 1992 as the devoted daughter of a man dying of stomach cancer and a secretary for a powerful businessman, Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez). Sometimes, Lena also plays the role of Severine, a part-time call girl, to make extra money. Desperate to pay for her father’s care, she returns to her side job and is surprised to be solicited by Martel. They begin a relationship that lasts two years, but though he calls her Lena, it seems that she is still in a masquerade. “Can she act?” wonders Judit when Lena auditions for a role in Mateo’s film. If she’s been Martel’s lover for two years, she must, says Mateo. Inevitably, Mateo falls in love, with the woman Lena and not the trophy object Severine, and thus begins a cycle of jealousy and betrayal.

After the giddy pleasure of the soap opera starts to wane, the idea of dual realities holds interest. The film is about the love of film and love through film as much as it is a romance between Lena and Mateo. Sometimes we assume false roles and love is obscured, but sometimes there is clarity within the frame. There’s a break-up scene in which Lena appears simultaneously in a video recording and in the room; the video has no sound so she speaks the words aloud, and the doubling has the effect of all her identities leaving him at once: the woman, the prostitute, and the actress. Later is one of the film’s most beautiful images, of Mateo’s hands pressed against a television screen playing, frame by frame, old footage of a kiss; it’s as if the pixels are transmitting love directly through his skin.

But there comes a point where the plot goes into overdrive and the film loses some of that unique enchantment — by Judit’s last secret, we’re all secreted out. It gets in the way of the extravagant imagery Almodóvar is so good at. He sweeps us up with his sensuous, often exaggerated tragic and comic flourishes — indulgent yes, but he’s one of the few directors able to indulge the audience as well as himself.