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Although I've never disliked a movie by Pedro Almodóvar, I've never been much of a fan, either, and in fact I still haven't seen the filmmaker's most highly regarded movies, Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) and Volver. So I can't talk about "his work." But I felt, watching Los abrazos rotos that the director has discovered a dramatic naturalism that takes the camp edge off of his big-screen style. Whenever I think of "an Almodóvar film," what I see is the Joan Crawford of Humoresque, but at twice the size, and in gloriously saturated colors that feel more like seductive textures than qualities of light. Or, rather, that's what I thought of before I saw Broken Embraces. What I see now is a pair of lovers, Lena and Mateo, a rich man's mistress (Penélope Cruz) and a famous film director (Lluís Homar) who fall in love when she signs on to star in his next film. I see them clawing at one another's clothes, or locked in a monumental clinch. There is nothing, absolutely nothing new about their story — and therein lies the power of the film. Mr Almodóvar clearly believes films can be ravishing and beautiful, and he has found exactly the right story to protect us from any and all distractions from the experience of ravishing beauty.
I don't mean the beauty of Penélope Cruz by itself, great as that is. I mean the beauty of everything that is seen and heard, even the things that aren't beautiful — such as Blanca Portillo's portrayal of the director's guilty, suspicious producer, Judit. The elements of the film are tied together by a determination to avoid rousing the viewer's mind, either into wondering what's going on (by being "mysterious") or into knowing what's going on (by being "intense"). Every now and then, Broken Embraces threatens to go over the top, dramatically, but invariably it shifts tone or fades to black instead. The emotion that we're to have, as we sit and watch, is not that of identifying with Lena, Mateo, Judit, or the rich man (José Luis Gómez). The emotion that we're supposed to have is the thrill that adolescents are experiencing with Avatar: "Wow!"
I haven't seen Avatar yet, so I won't take a poke at it; everything that I have read about it makes me dread the ordeal of sitting through it. But I think of Rene Rodriguez's review:
Watching Avatar in any of its incarnations (the 3D version adds considerable depth and dimension to the image, although the glasses start to grow heavy after the two-hour mark) is an undeniably transporting experience. When the ride is over, though, you're still left hungry for a movie.
This is not the case with Broken Embraces. It delivers all the satisfactions of a movie. Avatar does seem, at my remove, to be about the look and feel of spectacular effects; Broken Embraces is about the look and feel of love, jealousy, betrayal, and forgiveness. Mr Almodóvar has figured out how to present them in lucidly engaging cinema. You may not come away thinking much about these seismic forces, but you won't feel short-changed, either.
Another way to put it might be to say that Broken Embraces is fun — as are all the films of Mr Almodóvar's that I've seen — without being funny. Elation has taken the place of jokiness. (January 2010)
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