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Broken Embraces (DVD Review)

15 Mar, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 3/16/10
Sony Pictures
Box Office $4.7 million
$28.96 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for sexual content, language and some drug material.
Stars Penélope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Bianca Portillo.

Viewed purely as a drama about foiled romantic longings that keep lingering — no surprise, then, that much of the story is related in flashback — director Pedro Almodóvar’s latest peaks in its hearty middle section before petering out some in the final third.

But taken as a brief for the rarefied view that cinema is life’s highest calling (which sounds a lot more French than Spanish), here’s one of the stronger arguments yet advanced, given what happens to its blinded filmmaker protagonist, for the sanctity of the “director’s cut.”

To clarify the last, one would need to engage in no-no plot spoilers after Almodóvar (per usual) has spent an extraordinary amount of time constructing a complicated yarn. Suffice it to say that so much goes on here that the movie’s nominal star (Penélope Cruz, appearing in film No. 4 for the director) doesn’t even show up until the conclusion of a long build-up and then is only barely an on-screen factor in the concluding scenes. The latter situation explains the climatic sag: Cruz is the kind of star who can carry a picture. 

Initially known as Mateo, the filmmaker (Lluis Homar) wasn’t always blind, as we easily see in the flashbacks when his eyes first zero in on Cruz’s Lena character. Inarguably gorgeous, she is mistress to Ernesto (Jose Luis Gomez), a deceptively urbane bully whose sexual obsession doesn’t keep him from beating her up when he senses waning affections, something his actions facilitate.

No longer young, Ernesto sounds like someone with renewed mojo when he notes the six sexual acts they’ve just shared. She has a different reaction: throwing up in the bathroom.

Lena wants to act, and Mateo has an available piece of puff (something called Girls and Suitcases) for which Ernesto becomes reluctant producer. What happens to Mateo — before he changes his name to Harry Caine — shouldn’t happen to, say, Erich von Stroheim, Orson Welles or George Cukor, three directors who famously had masterpieces they made butchered in the editing process by moneymen. But this is just the beginning.

There’s a lot of inside baseball here, starting with the more generic-sounding Harry Caine moniker, which sounds as if Almodóvar flashed back to the Harry Palmer character that got Michael Caine his first acclaim (in 1965’s The Ipcress File) and ran with it. There are also references — either verbal or cinematic — to Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk and Michael Powell, three directors who, like Almodóvar, used color in very advanced ways (especially for their day) to convey emotion.

Ultimately, the result doesn’t quite add up to its initial promise, yet simply calling it a reasonably good time falls a tad short because the portions that Cruz dominates are pretty potent. Somewhere along the line (about where Almodóvar’s Volver met last year’s Elegy atop Cruz’s Oscar win for Vicky Cristina Barcelona), she became one of modern cinema’s first-rank actresses. What’s more, if she asked you to the prom, you’d probably go, whichever your sex.

Extras include a Variety Q&A with Cruz, a short film by Almodóvar, deleted scenes and some red carpet material from last fall’s New York Film Festival, where Embraces landed the prestigious closing night slot.

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