Nothing to Hide Now
“I’ll take care of everything.” When Lena (Penélope Cruz) first hears these words, she’s grateful. With her father dying of stomach cancer and her mother unable to care for him, Lena has turned to her employer, the wealthy and world-renowned entrepreneur Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez). But when he arranges for Lena’s father to be moved into a private clinic, leaving her mother (Ángela Molina) looking tearful and relieved, Lena stands beside her in the hospital looking slightly less comforted. The reason for her distractedness is plain in a moment, when her mother watches Lena walk away with Ernesto down the long hallway. A shot from her point of view shows her focus on Lena’s tight skirt, high heels, and perfect coif: the daughter has paid a price for smoothing over her parents’ last days together.
It’s not clear in this early scene in Broken Embraces (Los Abrazos Rotos) whether Lena’s mother realizes that in addition to her day-job, Lena has also worked as a hooker. And even though you do know, having seen her set up a night’s work with her madame the night before, you remain uncertain whether she is reverting to old behavior out of desperation to look after her father, or if she makes the call out of an less-in-control emotional desperation. Either way, Lena’s double life here sets up her interest, two years later, in becoming an actress. Or rather, it underlines her tendency to play parts in her daily life, say, as Ernesto’s very beautiful, very expensively outfitted wife.
The mysteries of Lena are at once exotic and familiar, culled from films by Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock as well as Pedro Almodóvar’s own melodramas. Her own look at herself in a series of mirrors doesn’t show quite the pain her mother’s face betrayed. Rather, Lena appears mostly vacant, allowing Ernesto and other clients to read in her what they wish. Whether they’re wanting ambiguity, artifice or acquiescence, Lena delivers to (or resists) any expectation. Her inauthenticity is the point: Lena represents cinema, illusion, some classic sort of femininity—endlessly consumable, only briefly possessed.
Lena’s excess ensures that she’s pursued repeatedly, as she is herself unable to settle down. It also means that even after she lands a part in an overheated melodrama-cum-noir, as well as the breathless lust of her director, Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar)—introduced as his second self, Harry Caine (“I became my pseudonym,” he doesn’t quite explain when Broken Embraces begins, gesturing toward the film’s layering of lies and self-delusions), Lena will go on performing, in memories and on film. Broken Embraces traces her effects in a series of cuts back and forth in time, in Madrid and on film sets (all beautifully shot by Rodrigo Pietro), her story recounted mostly by the still-and-ever smitten Mateo some years later, as well as by his less-impressed production manager Jutid (Blanca Portillo).
As he remembers it, when Lena auditions for Mateo, he’s so smitten he can’t formulate an effective test for her. The first encounter is recorded by Ernesto’s decidedly odd gay son, Ernesto Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano), who will go on to record most all of their time together, his eager camera operating not so comic as tedious. As Mateo and Lena’s relationship develops into a full-blown affair—she’s his muse, he’s her mentor, they’re in love with themselves through each other—Ernesto Jr. documents their embraces through windows and curtains. As Mateo makes his film and Lena’s live unravels, Ernesto consumes Ernesto Jr.‘s dailies each evening, his eyes wide and his heart dark, immersed in self-pity and plotting his revenge. Because the footage is silent, Ernesto brings in a lip-reader (Lola Dueñas, who starred with Cruz in Volver) to interpret and give voice to the false Lena before him.
This device leads to a couple of striking images, each reflecting on the very concept of the muse, the role so frequently attributed to Cruz vis a vis Almodóvar. If Lena inspires and also drives Ernesto, Ernesto Jr., and Mateo, her own desire is wrapped up in theirs, primarily, to finish the film and achieve her stardom, no matter the cost. In the first scene, Lena discovers Ernesto Jr. shooting her and comes at him, furiously inverting the scene this one quotes, from Peeping Tom. Her rage and violence alarm Ernesto Jr., who remains uncertain exactly how or why he’s becomes so obsessed with filming his father’s object of desire; during the playback, with Ernesto watching, the second image is even more intricately layered. As Ernesto faces his private viewing screen, Lena appears at the back of the room, her figure barely contained in a scarlet suit as she speaks for the silent image. He hardly knows where to turn, to face forward and gaze on the projection that has been driving him into a frenzy for weeks, or to turn to look on the woman now speaking out loud, translating her experience into actual words.
The doubled Lena underscores this movie’s focus on her function as image. Unlike Volver, for example, Broken Embraces remains fixed on the ways that men—rich businessmen, film directors, jealous sons—seek control of the not-so-elusive Lena. While the movie is overtly an homage to the love of movies (in particular, Almodóvar’s love of movies), it’s also about the love of Lena’s unreality.