Pedro Almodóvar’s newest feature film Broken Embraces is a beautiful homage to cinema, an amalgam of styles that finds Almodóvar’s direction as graceful and strong as ever—there is a mature ripeness to these new images, which hold a delicately hidden eloquence and heartache in addition to a profound strength. As is his usual custom, the director toys with linear composition and symmetry in his hybridized world, filling in each space of the frame with visual interest whether it is simply a grid of lines, a close-up of an eye or the “fullness” of his flashback sequences. Every technical element the director uses here is refined, and the spectator is witnessing a master director working at the height of his powers—whether it is the delicate mixing of film stocks to transcend and challenge conventional temporality or merely playing with dialectical montage and editing to reinvigorate one of his favorite tropes: the show within a show, the director knows the medium inside and out.
Often labeled Almodóvar’s “muse”, Penelope Cruz, in her fourth performance for the great director, gives a nuanced, vulnerable and melancholic performance. There are so many moments of chic stillness from her here as the actress Lena, and she conveys a bottomless well of sadness with one soulful glance. The actress, who has a tendency to show new colors with each new performance, shows a kind of disquieting chilliness here, which imbues the work with an ice-blue tone. Cruz’s performance is akin to a frozen bird in a gilded cage, someone coolly haunted and trapped—she showed a similarly bruised side in Elegy last year and gets only stronger and stronger as an actress, it seems. Romantic possession, doomed love, and fatal beauty are recurring motifs in the world of Almodóvar, and their roots run deep into the canons of auteurs such as Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk and Ingmar Bergman, three of the director’s most-revered cinematic reference points.
Broken Embraces (Los Abrazos Rotos)
Penélope Cruz, Lluís Homar, Blanca Portillo, Rossy de Palma, Rubén Ochandiano, Carlos Leal, Lola Dueñas, Ángela Molina, José Luis Gómez, Tamar Novas
(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 20 Nov 2009 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 28 Aug 2009 (General release); 2009)
Broken Embraces is a seasoned masterwork, with subtle grace notes, humor, style and mystery. Part noir, part screwball comedy, part homage to his heroes, the construction of Broken Embraces’ mood hinges on the luscious way in which Almodóvar lets his story unspool in perfect harmony with an artful image. And if you thought Quentin Tarantino referenced a lot of classic cinema in Inglorious Basterds earlier this year, just wait until you see Almodóvar’s virtual filmic tapestry that celebrates the magic of cinematic creation: Louis Malle, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Audrey Hepburn, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 8/12, Kiss of Death, Voyage to Italy, Fanny and Alexander... there are so many films referenced here, often literally, and yet the proceedings never become burdened by the rapid-fire succession of smart historical references.
This is a love letter to movie making if ever there was one and nobody can do it with the kind of authority that Almodóvar does: with tremendous attention to detail, a deep understanding of the way the medium works and, of course, a keen understanding and profound appreciation of film history. The press notes for Broken Embraces were written by Almodóvar himself (which is fairly unusual) and the way he breaks down the elements of the movie is simply brilliant—he addresses each point of the film that he feels is important in understanding it and writes concisely about his intentions—there is a particularly amazing section where he talks about his use of “stairs” in the film, and then, briefly, about the history of the use of stairs in Hollywood film. His love and understanding of film and film history is staggering and unexpected.
Juggling a hectic promotional schedule, I was initially told that a private interview with legendary Almodóvar was basically out of the question and that he did very few one on one interviews to promote films, in general. Thanks to the efforts of one of the best public relations teams in the business, a little tenacity on my part, and a lot of prayer, I was able to sit down in a swanky Manhattan hotel suite to talk with one of the most celebrated filmmakers of our time. Almodóvar is a man who has already gone down in the history books as one of the best (witness groundbreaking triumphs like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Talk to Her for starters). He is a director who, like his star, becomes stronger and stronger with each new venture, while still retaining his signature sense of humor, his dignity and his distinct point of view. I’m still surprised that I was able to maintain my composure sitting next to the director of All About My Mother, which for me was a landmark piece of work that changed the way I looked at film in general and made me want to take it even more seriously. Generous with his time, effervescent and irreverent, and interested in chatting about Jessica Lange—Almodóvar was everything I imagined him to be.
What is it like travelling to all of the festivals with your film and presumably meeting all of the world’s great directors? Is it all business and no pleasure?
It’s always a mixture. One of the nicest things about festivals is that I always end up seeing actor friends or director friends who I don’t otherwise get to see. Because it’s not really the ideal location to evaluate a film. For example, at a place like Cannes, there are so many films to see, so much excitement built around it, that there is very little time for reflection. But in any case, feeling that excitement is also a lot of fun to feel. For example, another thing you get to do at these festivals, is see your film screened for the first time, for a particular audience, say here in New York at the New York film festival and it is very exciting and at the same time a little nerve-racking because you don’t know how a particular audience is going to react to your film. It’s always pleasure and business. I mean, it’s always an interesting experience.
What was the most surprising thing about Penelope in the film for you in Broken Embraces?
It wasn’t a surprise, it was a confirmation. At the same time it’s always a surprise because I am always confronted with her versatility as an actress. So it was, for example, a very different role from the one she played in Volver and I was fully confident that she would do it well, but at the same time, you don’t know whether she’s going to do it well, so you always have that mixture between confirmation and surprise.
I feel like every time I see a new performance by Penelope, there is always new shading or that there is something surprising there…
Yes! I know! This is something amazing. I mean, the four different movies we did, I cast her as something completely different. I’m very glad that people can watch that. I mean I knew the secret to it—she has many different faces and has many different women inside her, as an actress I mean. Sometimes almost the opposite—she can be like in the style of someone strong, like Sophia Loren, like in Volver and someone much more frail or fragile like Audrey Hepburn like at the end of this movie. These are two very different types of actresses, even physically, but she can be that and that’s fantastic.
Speaking of actresses, when I was about seven, I fell passionately in love with Jessica Lange.
(nodding enthusiastically) I can imagine!
It was because of her gaze on the poster for the film Frances!
In Frances, she was amazing! She was nominated but didn’t get the Oscar?
She won for Tootsie, for supporting actress that year.
(shaking his head) But not for Frances...
Do you remember a specific point when you were younger when you just fell in love madly with actresses?
Oh yeah! Very much! I was a child. At the end of the ‘50s, the early ‘60s, I fell in love with many. Audrey Hepburn was one of them. But Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardener. Gloria Grahame, also, in all these kind of noir movies. I always felt a lot of pity with Gloria Grahame because she died in almost all the movies I saw at that moment. It was very unfair. But it was another time, you know? I think I became a director for the possibility of directing actors or actresses. But in that particular case, I was obsessed with Bette Davis and Kate Hepburn. They were alive when I started making movies, but of course, I was a small Spanish director that couldn’t get the possibility of working with them, but it was my dream to work with these two actresses, specifically.
And also Ava Gardener, I was fascinated by her. In Mogambo, it was completely magical. Or in The Barefoot Contessa. I remember very well that period. I was just a child or an adolescent. Even in ’64, when she made Night of the Iguana, she was not so young, but I was very impressed by that movie. I know it is not, like, a perfect movie and not even the best John Huston movie, but I was so impressed by everything, but about her and the work here. I remember also that I was very impressed—I didn’t mention this [on Saturday] because we didn’t have enough time—if I have to talk about the seventeen movies that I did, some of it is very personal at the beginning. I identified very much with that sensibility and that is Tennessee Williams. All the movies made, the adaptations of Williams, I had a strange feeling that I belonged to that sensibility, even though I was so far away.