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Broken Embraces

Sony Pictures // R // March 16, 2010
List Price: $34.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 9, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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"Everything has already happened to me. All that's left is to enjoy life."

Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar) was a filmmaker who once lived his life through images; now blind, he's spent the better part of the past fifteen years wading through an extended coda. Hiding behind an absurd pseudonym and churning out hackwork screenplays, his own climax has long since come and gone..."Harry Caine" is just waiting for the screen to fade to black and the end credits to make their upward crawl. His days are now devoted to immediate pleasures. Why not hammer out a marketable but completely forgettable script? Harry knows his best work is years behind him. Why not seduce a gorgeous blonde who helps him across the street? He'll never again experience the all-consuming passion of his life's greatest love.

As Harry is both physically and emotionally incapable of looking forward, it follows that Broken Embraces unfolds largely in a series of flashbacks. In the here and now, Harry is offered an exorbitant payday by a mysterious young man who calls himself Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano). Ray has envisioned an elaborate story about a son's revulsion for his father, and as fully-fleshed out as the premise seems to be, he's nonetheless desperate for Harry to write it. This comes just as Harry learns of the death of disgraced, indescribably wealthy financier Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), and much of the film from there explores how all of these threads -- the now-dead Ernesto, the intensity of the young man so compelled to have his story told, and whatever it was that robbed Mateo of his sight and deadened his soul -- once intertwined.

What is it that could inspire so much passion...that could so wholly consume the lives of so many men? A woman, of course: Lena (Penélope Cruz). Mateo and Ernesto both were once obsessed with the prospect of having her in their lives. To Ernesto, she was like an impossibly beautiful work of art: adored yet closely guarded to spare her the ravages of the world outside. He's baffled that Lena would desire more than the life of a kept woman, as if the fact that she'd want to return to exploring a career as an actress...that she'd want more than to pick out color swatches to redecorate his palatial somehow a slight against him. Lena isn't much of an actress, but Mateo -- then at the peak of his career as a director -- saw something in her just the same...or at least he'd convinced himself he had. She's not just his leading lady: Lena quickly becomes Mateo's obsession as well, though this time the infatuation is mutual. Seething with jealousy at the prospect of Lena possibly escaping his clutches, Ernesto shoehorns his way into Girls and Suitcases as producer, even bringing his teenaged son onboard...ostensibly to document the making of the film but really to covertly keep on eye on any hint of infidelity. Mateo knows from the outset that he's playing
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with fire, but unable to resist, everything he holds dear is soon reduced to a smoldering cinder.

A story teeming with lust, violent obsession, and loss, Broken Embraces certainly takes some of its cues from film noir, complete with the noirish brass that occasionally colors the score. Breaking from the conventions of that genre, though, Penélope Cruz avoids settling into the part of the traditional femme fatale. Lena isn't the sort to scheme or manipulate. Whenever it seems as if she is exploitative, it's entirely to someone else's person or another for whom she cares far too much to see suffer. Broken Embraces marks writer/director Pedro Almodóvar's fourth feature film with Cruz, and he again brings out of her the sort of mesmerizing performance that I've rarely seen in her English language films. Cruz brings to Broken Embraces the passion and smoldering sexuality of a femme fatale, but she does it through a character who's believable and grounded in reality, not exaggeratedly heightened as the women in noir so frequently are. We rarely glimpse Lena on her own, and most every scene in which she appears is colored by the perception of the men who adore her. For instance, that Mateo sees Lena as more than just a sexual object is perhaps most evident when she's in the make-up chair. Mateo is faced with choosing which actress of days past to mold her character after -- Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe -- and he chooses the former...the elven and enchanting of the two rather than a pin-up idol.

Another aspect of Broken Embraces that sets it apart from the expected conventions of film noir is that its characters' passion for each other is nearly equalled by their passion for their art. Some of the twists and turns in the plot are driven by Lena and Mateo's compulsion to protect the film they're making together as much as it is to further their romance. The film fuels their love, and in turn, their love fuels the film; when one is threatened, the other soon finds itself in the crosshairs as well. Almodóvar's fascination with the art of filmmaking is a central element of Broken Embraces. Girls with Suitcases, the film-within-a-film, draws heavily from Almodóvar's own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, from its candy-colored cinematography to its overlapping cast. Cineastes might also find themselves trying to spot some of the allusions made to other films throughout Broken Embraces; there's its somewhat noirish bent, of course, along with direct references to the likes of Belle de jour and Peeping Tom. Especially as it boasts a score whose
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hypnotic strings so frequently bring to mind Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock comparisons are unavoidable as well. One of the sequences most beaming with passion isn't one of its sex scenes but Harry riffing with a colleague's son about a concept for a vampiric screenplay. Almodóvar doesn't let himself get too distracted too much with the referential winks that often come with helming a movie about filmmaking, however. It enriches the story: secrets are both hidden behind the camera and gradually revealed through its lenses...artistry and sexual passion are intertwined...there's a permanance to art that can long outlast the fires that first fueled it. There's something I can't help but love that Lena's performance throughout Girls and Suitcases is stiff and awkward, and yet Mateo is always able to coax at least one brilliant take out of her. It speaks to the power of cinema that a magical performance or an unwatchable trainwreck could only be separated by a few hundred feet of film.

Skulking around as many Internet movie forums as I do, I've repeatedly seen Broken Embraces shrugged off as one of Almodóvar's lesser films...some even saying that the familiar construction of its characters and themes is Almodóvar on autopilot. Though perhaps it's true that this isn't as emotionally resonant as its writer/director's most exceptional work, I still found myself wholly entranced by Broken Embraces. As expected for an Almodóvar film, the cinematography is nothing short of dazzling, and the film continually bounds from one tone to another in a story infused with so much tragedy, passion, and, to a lesser extent, humor. It's not a flawless movie by any means; in a story that already draws from the same well as a soapy telenovela, Ochandiano's turn as Ray X manages to be even more cartoonishly exaggerated than his character's name, and Harry's writing partner is saddled with a couple of unnecessary twists when he's better left as the likeable soundboard that had already been established. Some certainly may find Broken Embraces to be strange, emotionally detached, or simply impenetrable. I loved it, though; the sprawling narrative feels as if someone tripped and sent a box of puzzle pieces scattered across the floor, and as fractured as the movie looks to be at first glance, it gradually takes a consistently surprising and very satisfying shape over the course of two hours. That approach, coupled with its gorgeous photography, intense performances, and deft blend of disparate genres, makes Broken Embraces a more than worthwhile discovery on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.

Broken Embraces easily ranks among the most breathtakingly gorgeous films that I've had the pleasure of experiencing on Blu-ray. I found myself immediately startled by the richness of the detail and clarity that this disc boasts. Further bolstered by robust black levels, Broken Embraces also showcases such depth and dimensionality that I frequently felt as if I could reach out and touch the imagery that Almodóvar so skillfully splashes across the screen. Its thin sheen of grain remains tight and unintrusive throughout as well, lending the image a tremendously filmic texture. As spectacular as every last element of this high definition presentation is, its vivid palette remains Broken Embraces' greatest strength. Most of its striking hues look as if they could've been lifted directly from one of Powell/Pressburger's Technicolor marvels...leaning somewhat towards pastels, these are the sorts of shades that trump anything I could hope to witness in real life. Almodóvar's keen visual eye is most heavily drawn towards reds in this film, and the ruddier end of the spectrum is nothing less than astonishing here. Girls and Suitcases, the film-within-a-film, is even more vibrantly saturated with its candy-colored hues. Broken Embraces is among the most beautifully photographed films I've witnessed in high definition, and it demands to be experienced on Blu-ray.

A tiny portion of the film's runtime is shot with far lesser equipment, but this makes perfect sense within the context of the story and, I'd hope it would go without saying, should in no way be considered a flaw with this Blu-ray disc. The film's theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 is faithfully preserved on Blu-ray, and Broken Embraces's high-bitrate AVC encode spans both layers of this BD-50 disc.

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Broken Embraces' audio is presented in its original Spanish on this six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD MA soundtrack. The nature of the material doesn't lend itself to any fiery theatrics; this understated mix is weighted heavily towards the front, reserving the rears almost entirely for light atmosphere. Though they rarely draw attention to themselves, these sorts of ambient effects are subtle but effective. The only action-oriented effect in the surrounds that particularly leaps out at me is some music briefly rushing through the rear channels in what looks to be a tiny night club. Some booming electronica aside, there's little need for any thunderous waves of bass either. The low-end is restrained, but it maintains enough of a presence for the score to sound consistently full-bodied throughout. The Spanish dialogue is rendered cleanly and clearly in the center channel, never once threatened to be overwhelmed in the mix. Some may be disappointed that the swiftest, most violent effect in the film doesn't attack with any ferocity in the soundtrack, although in this particular case, the visuals are shocking enough to stand on their own without that sort of sonic reinforcement. Broken Embraces' lossless audio isn't going to push any sort of overpriced home theater rig to the breaking point, no, but it complements the material wonderfully.

A Dolby Digital 5.1 dub in French has also been included, and subtitles are offered in English (traditional and SDH) and French. Owners of constant image height projection rigs should note that the subtitles are rooted in the letterboxing bars.

  • Deleted Scenes (12 min.; HD): Broken Embraces' reel of deleted scenes features three distinct sets of footage, and first among them is a failed attempt by a figure in Mateo's past to reconnect with him. The thoroughly strange "Restaurant without a View" is a drastically different take on Mateo's birthday dinner, one that awkwardly enables his only friends to experience something close enough to life through his eyes. Finally, there are additional moments from Mateo's Girls and Suitcases. Even more overtly comedic than the excerpts witnessed in the film proper, we finally see someone take a bite of that doped-up gazpacho. Of these three scenes, this final one is the only one that's essential viewing, and that's in no small part because of...

  • The Cannibalistic Councillor (8 min.; SD): Broken Embraces also features a new short by Almodóvar, though he directs here under the name of Mateo Blanco to further the illusion of the film-within-a-film. Picking up almost immediately where the final deleted scene in the extras had left off, Carmen Machi's coke-snorting councillor rants to a completely unconscious woman about her sticky sexual fantasies and all-consuming, cannibalistic lust. It's all played for a laugh, of course, coming to a close with a particularly effective gag. Though most every other glimpse of Girls and Suitcases is in HD elsewhere on the disc, The Cannibalistic Councillor is limited to standard definition only.

  • Variety Q&A with Penélope Cruz (6 min.; HD): Cruz' comments in this breezy chat tend to be rather cursory, touching on how tough she is on herself as an actress, her preparations towards this career that she took as a child, and how the only English she could speak when pursuing her first American production were her lines from the film. Broken Embraces itself is addressed only briefly in this six minute interview, and with so
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    much of its runtime devoted to long, standard definition excerpts from the film, there isn't enough time for anything substantial.

  • On the Red Carpet: The New York Film Festival Closing Night (3 min.; HD): This featurette's cameras capture a few quick comments from Almodóvar and his leading lady on the red carpet, such as the collaborative process they've shaped in more than a decade working together as well as Cruz seeing herself as playing three distinct roles in Broken Embraces. Again, though, it's simply too short to be able to lob out anything all that meaningful.

  • Pedro Directs Penélope (6 min.; SD): This one is precisely what the title makes it out to be: Almodóvar giving Cruz direction as she rehearses for the movie-within-a-movie. It's intriguing to see how the mentor works with his muse, offering such specific guidance and shouting out quick bits of character insight to steer her performance in a particular direction.

  • Trailer (2 min.; HD): Rounding out the extras is the film's theatrical trailer. A slew of other high definition promos have also been included, among them the trailer for Almodóvar's Volver.

Broken Embraces is a BD Live-enabled disc, though to be honest, I can't imagine that the online functionality would amount to anything more than the usual promotional portal.

The Final Word
Though some have criticized it for being Almodóvar at his most routine, I found myself enthralled with Broken Embraces just the same. It's a film with its share of flaws, to be sure, but I was fascinated watching the puzzle before me gradually take shape, and what a terrifically acted and visually striking puzzle it is. Broken Embraces is nothing short of breathtaking on Blu-ray as well; if I'm less critical about the film than most, then perhaps it's because Almodóvar's spectacular cinematic eye distracted me from whatever the movie's shortcomings may be. It's a mild disappointment that the extras are so uninsightful, however. The two interviews are insubstantial promotional pieces and hardly any substitute for a proper audio commentary or making-of featurette. That's the only true misstep I could find with this Blu-ray disc, though. Broken Embraces may not represent Almodóvar's most exceptional work, but it's compelling and wildly entertaining in its own right, and I'd just as soon view the film on its own merits rather than mull over where it ranks in its director's filmography anyway. Highly Recommended.
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