Pedro Almodóvar seems like a nice guy in interviews and personal appearances, jovial and likable, but he doesn't seem like someone you'd want to ask for directions. As a filmmaker, he's not terribly interested in getting from point A to point B in anything resembling a straight line; for some filmmakers, that would be a disadvantage, but with Almodóvar, it's part of his charm. True to form, his new film Broken Embraces gives us an almost comically convoluted storyline, introducing a deliberately disparate group of characters and then hopping around a decade and a half, slowly drawing them together into a surprisingly cogent narrative. It's a puzzle movie, and I don't mind admitting to long stretches where I wasn't sure where the hell he was going. But he always seems pretty confident, and with a director who's as much a force of nature as he, that can be good enough.
We're first introduced to blind writer Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), who explains that he was once a sighted director named Mateo Blanco, and Caine was a pseudonym, but then the second identity took over, and... yeah. When he is told about the death of wealthy businessman Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), the film flashes back to 1992, when Martel seduces his secretary Lena (Penélope Cruz) by getting medical help for her dying father and then taking Lena on as his mistress. Back in 2008, Caine is visited by "Ray X" (Rubén Ochandiano), a young filmmaker who seems to know something about Harry's past and his other identity, and...
Ah, to hell with it. A film like Broken Embraces laughs in the face of a one-paragraph summary, and frankly, that's one of its best qualities; there is an "anything goes" quality to the storytelling, inherent in much of Almodóvar's work. He stakes out his own territory, tonally speaking, with a bizarre but somehow effective mix of soapy melodrama and real, honest-to-goodness pathos and heartbreak.
This time (though there were hints of it in his previous picture, Volver), the filmmaker shows another influence, with several deliberate (and good-humored) homages to Alfred Hitchcock, from Alberto Iglesias' occasionally Hermann-esque music cues and the Vertigo-inspired sequence of Cruz being dressed and molded (even trying on a platinum blonde wig) to the extended riffs on Hitch's favorite theme of voyeurism. In a sly and inspired touch, Martel has his son spy on Lena as she stars in a film he finances, having him tape her every move in the guise of a behind-the-scenes documentary; he then hires a lip reader to decipher far-off conversations. The theme comes to a head with a mind-bending scene in which Lena, from the back of his screening room, watches and speaks along with her counterpart on screen.
Not all of the director's contrivances work; several scenes don't go much of anywhere (like a too-long brainstorming session about a vampire screenplay, which fits in about as well as it sounds like it would) and we just can't take some of it seriously, even when we're supposed to (Martel's son's bowl-cut wig and glasses are a reverse-aging costume that would get laughed out of an SNL dress rehearsal). But most of his risks play, and his teaming with the brilliant cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (21 Grams, Frida, 25th Hour) is inspired; the picture's look is lush and luminous. Likewise, the director's partnership with Cruz continues to be one of the most fruitful and fascinating filmmaker-actor collaborations of the current cinema. Following her Oscar-winning triumph in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and her show-stopping turn in Nine, it seems that she is only getting sexier, more confident, and more surprising with age.
Shockingly, Broken Embraces does all come together by its conclusion, and in a way that (mostly) makes sense, thanks to a series of completely unexpected and effective plot turns (there's only one third-act revelation that's anticipated, and it's as obvious as the rest of the film is unpredictable). But the sheer emotion of Almodóvar's narrative keeps it grounded; he may never find a more heartbreaking image than the destroyed man's hands on a TV screen, asking one favor: "Play it frame by frame, so that it lasts longer."