Broken Embraces was a disappointing, tiresome, sometimes frustrating experience. There's something strange about the feel of the film that I can't quite put my finger on, and that's why the it frustrates me. Is it deliberately campy in presentation or just ineffective, jumbled attempts at some kind of unique creativity? I'm not quite sure, and that's why Almodóvar's film failed to make me feel much of anything. With the exception of his two main characters Lena (Cruz) and Mateo (Homar), everyone else involved in the soap opera is empty and under-developed because nothing but their momentary motives are revealed to us, and never any characteristic substance. The implementation of cinematic clichés and an overabundance of overly-dramatic acting were at times laughable, even painful. Maybe Almodóvar wanted it that way, though. Perhaps the use of an acting style that could have come straight from a 1940's classic is some kind of homage to the kind of film he loves.
The movie certainly doesn't shy away from any long withstanding clichés about romance, either. Broken Embraces is centered around the romance between Mateo and Lena. Mateo is a screenwriter/director who casts Lena in his comedy, instantly falling in love with her during her audition. But there's a catch. Lena's significant other is a high profile millionaire named Ernesto (José Luis Gómez) who requests to produce the film after he becomes suspicious of Lena's long working hours on the set. After his suspicions begin to consume him he sends his son, Ernesto Jr. to film Lena's every move, all the while telling Mateo and others on the set that he is recording a documentary about the making of the film. As things turn from bad to worse with Lena and Ernesto at home, a climax in their ongoing confrontation occurs when Ernesto pushes Lena down the stairs, hospitalizing her. Shortly thereafter, Mateo and Lena flee, leaving behind Ernesto and Blanca (Judit García), Mateo's agent and closest confidant.
After Lena's confrontation with Ernesto and during her subsequent escape with Mateo is when the film becomes strikingly cliché and humorously over-dramatic in its acting, encompassing every characteristic of a quintessential soap opera. Every romantic embrace between Mateo and Lena is laced with all of the stereotypes one can possibly think of from pop-culture spoofs about what I call "over-drama." In one scene, the two clasp and fall over each other and begin showering one another with kisses. During scenes like these I felt like I was watching parody. But, as I stated earlier, Almodóvar knew this. It's clear that he wanted to provoke this style of acting from his performers. The man is, after all, one of the most well-established, respected and creative Spanish filmmakers working today. I think he's attempting to create something new, unique and even personal with commonly used styles and approaches (his use of melodrama, romantic drama, etc.) But what is Almodóvar's personal touch on such things? The one thing I admire about the film: the artistry behind and attention paid to almost every single shot.
Keeping me engaged in a film that I otherwise thought to be fairly unmoving was Almodóvar's talent with the camera and what he sees it as capable of producing for his audience. His uses of primary colors (reds in particular) throughout the entire film make for visually stunning shots, turning almost every one into something easily transferable (at least in the viewer's mind) to a museum wall. If not for such creative insight behind the camera, I would have been thoroughly bored by what Broken Embraces had to offer. Maybe this was what Almodóvar wanted to achieve, then. Maybe there is something to be said for a man choosing such commonly used cinematic devices and approaches to tell his story behind the backdrop of his own unique artistic talents. Also worthy of mention from a technical standpoint are the camera angles. Throughout the course of the movie we're consistently surprised by odd but intriguing placement of the camera. At the beginning of the film there's a shot looking up from the bottom of a glass table at a phone while someone is talking on it, and we only see their arm. At another instance later in the movie the camera is tilted diagonally while Lena lays on an examination table in the hospital, then proceeds to follow her as she raises her body, creating an unusual sensation for the viewer as it all takes place.
As the story progresses, we learn of what happens to Mateo and Lena in their attempt to flee. After we learn of Lena's fate and the motive behind its happening, the characters still remain underdeveloped and all we have to rely on for characteristic substance is motive. For Blanca (a character I haven't talked much about), it's obvious that she has deep love and admiration for Mateo, but we know nothing else about her. Instead we're forced to wonder what would make a woman like her continue to lust after and admire Mateo, a man who partook in a selfish deed that altered the lives of everyone involved. Lena becomes Ernesto's significant other after being moved by what seems to be his immense kindness. She can also act. She also falls in love with Mateo. Other than that, we know nothing else about her. Although rich with creativity and vibrancy from a technical standpoint, Broken Embraces remains flat and just doesn't resonate. A false, over-dramatic feel kept me from being involved in what it had to offer. Penélope Cruz is gorgeous as Lena, but Lena isn't much else than... well, gorgeous. I give the film 6.5/10 stars. As Impressed as I was by its technical achievements, its flaws in terms of substance overshadow any positives it may have.