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The Instant Movie Club: Broken Embraces

Every week, your friends at Culture Blues get together to watch a movie from their Netflix Instant queue. Then, they sit down and discuss it over flan. This is The Instant Movie Club.

This week, we’ll be discussing Broken Embraces, Pedro Almodovar's 2009 drama starring Penelope Cruz. The below discussion contains spoilers.

Next Week: Mail Order Wife. We discuss the 2004 mail order bride comedy from the men behind the upcoming The Virginity Hit.

Spoilers Below

Jeff: I should begin by admitting that Broken Embraces is the first Pedro Almodovar movie that I’ve seen. Almodovar is a pretty big deal in some circles. He’s likely Spain’s most celebrated director.  All that being said, I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

I won’t outright dismiss Broken Embraces. By no means is it a bad film. I was consistently engaged for the entire runtime, even had moments (especially early on), where I found myself becoming invested in the narrative. However, the film is overlong and, by the time it reaches its flat conclusion, has definitely worn out its welcome. Almodovar often creates stunning visuals and there’s some interesting blending of colorful Spanish melodrama with creepy Hitchcock style thriller elements, but craft can only take you so far when the characters we’re being asked to care about elicit only el meh.

I put most of the blame for the non-feelings I was left with on the disparity between Lluis Homar’s blind, tortured writer Harry Caine and Penelope Cruz’s aspiring actress Lena. Harry is an exceptionally well drawn character. Lena, on the other hand, is really really good looking. We know very little about her beyond her aspirations, her sick father, and her willingness to let older men just hump away at her. Almodovar lovingly renders Cruz like only a dirty old man could – there’s a post-coital scene where a naked Cruz looks into the mirror and comments on how “awful” she looks that made me laugh out loud – but beauty alone isn’t enough to build a love triangle around. The romance felt flat to me. I didn’t buy it. Sure, I could understand why two older men would become obsessed with Cruz, but I never understood what was in it for her or, really, if she had any genuine feelings at all. I don’t think we’re meant to question Lena’s motivations, they’re supposed to be pure, but they mostly feel hollow.

Anyway, with the romance not working for me, the subsequent pile of telenovela revelations didn’t pluck any heartstrings either. Hard to manufacture some kind of catharsis for events that never felt genuine to begin with. Am I heartless and wrong? Ben, did you cry?

Just hanging out on a funky couch

Jeremiah: Like Jeff this is the first Almodovar movie I've seen. Unlike him, I'm totally ready to outright dismiss Broken Embraces and I’m also prepared to call it a bad movie. By the end, I was not only bored, I was becoming irritated and spiteful. The fact that our villain’s master plan is to re-edit somebody’s movie gives you an idea of the kind of drama we’re dealing with.

Of course there are good things I could talk about. It’s an interesting movie visually. There are points early on where the story seems to be going interesting places. The performances are solid and at times intriguing. I loved Jose Luis Gomez as Ernesto Martel, but ultimately he may have imbued the character with too much menace for the movie’s own good. I thought for sure he’d ordered a hit on Lena because he seemed capable of it. I was even into Judit’s shameful explanation of the re-editing of the movie. Unfortunately, everything unfolds in very uninteresting ways. Right from the opening scene, it's clear this story is dependent on revelations to come. Getting to those revelations, not to mention the revelations themselves, turns out to be unsatisfying and not nearly enough fun to support the soapy contrivances. I think Jeff is being too kind calling the melodrama “colorful” unless he literally means that it’s full of colors. I found it all pretty dry.

I echo most of Jeff’s criticisms otherwise, particularly about the “flat conclusion.” So let’s get to some other stuff that bothered me. They apparently subscribed to the Dexter method of making someone look younger when they slapped that absurd wig on Ernesto Jr. Was that a joke? Ernesto’s whole involvement in the 2008 storyline seemed like an awkward fit. Girls and Suitcases looked pretty bad, but at least it was more lively than Broken Embraces.

This experience reminded me of watching one of Soderbergh's little diversions, such as Bubble or The Girlfriend Experience. These movies are clearly made by talented, intelligent people who wring something out of nothing. In the end though, they just aren't worthwhile. The biggest thing I’m coming away with is that now I know what song Kurupt sampled in Stalkin’.

Hey, all these images have red in them! Amazing!

Ben: I only cried when I read Jeff’s take on the movie, and came to realize that there is no Penelope Cruz waiting for me once I become old and insufferable. I had been living under the impression that this was the case for years.

I agree with much of what my colleagues have said. Maybe if I would have watched this on a day where I hadn’t been in the car for several hours I would have appreciated it more, but for most of its run-time I couldn’t get into it. I understand why we had to deal with so many different stories in Broken Embraces but after a while I just felt annoyed. Normally I enjoy narratives like this, but in this case it made the script feel like a love letter to itself more than an actual story I could care about.

Ever since Penelope uttered the completely ridiculous “in another life, when we are both cats” line in Vanilla Sky I have had some trouble taking her seriously, and it isn’t entirely her fault. I think she’s a talented actress, but whenever I see her in a movie I feel like she isn’t taking control of the role, and rather is just a mirror for how someone else sees the world.

All that being said, there are certainly aspects of this movie that I enjoyed. Like Jeremiah, I will reluctantly throw out a few compliments. The sequence with the high heels and the mansion tumble was well done, and as Jeff said our blind writer was a genuinely interesting character. Where I disagree with Mr. Hart is about Pedro’s direction, I think I do see what the fuss is about. The style is unique, even if some of the plot devices that it caters to are not. A lot of directors draw praise for making visually provocative movies, but there is an uncanny crispness to these images that I did enjoy.

Just the same, these images would be better served in a movie that didn’t suck.

He can't see how much she loves him (get it?)

Zach: It's a severe bummer that this movie didn't go over so well at the CB office. Unlike the rest of the crew, I have seen a number of Almodovar's previous films, and I sent an e-mail out to some of the staff regarding my eager anticipation to see his newest work. As a big aficionado of Spanish cinema in general, I've always admired this director for the breakthroughs he brought to the scene and influence he's had on subsequent filmmakers. While I've enjoyed some of Pedro's stories better than others, no matter what, you can at least count on them to keep you captivated and weirded out in a way you won't soon forget. The images, characters, and usually some select scenes, stand out in your mind and come up in conversation years afterward when someone mentions Almodovar's name.

I watched Broken Embraces with someone else who has seen many of his films, and as the opening credits rolled, we joked about how long it would be before we were subjected to an awkward sexual scene. Next thing we know we're watching some good ol' blind person flirting and fucking. Soon after that, a homosexual character shows up looking for dramatic vengeance, and boom, we're on our way to yet another signature Almodovar narrative.

But, I can understand the CB staff's disappointment. While Broken Embraces was marked by plenty of Almodovar's signature elements, it didn't carry the powerful punch that usually keeps the viewer off balance throughout. Yet I'm glad my fellow critical bastards were able to pull out some of his stylistic strengths.

I love his narrative acumen. I love the way the characters in his movies often spontaneously go on a tangent and tell a narrative within a narrative that hooks you. In those moments, you can feel the director's appreciation for the art of storytelling . With Almodovar it's always about the love triangles, the chronological shifts, the familial and social abnormalities. We find these all in this film, albeit maybe not in the most effective manner. Typically there's also a cinematic version of magical realism that appears in just the right dose in Almodovar's wacky flicks. But that was missing in Broken Embraces, and that omission might be responsible for a more boring story.

My hope is that my buddies here, who have cast off this movie mainly because of its narrative and characters, have seen enough intriguing filmmaking techniques that they check out some of his stronger works of the past.

Is the CB office full of Philistines incapable of appreciating true art? Or has Almodovar simply gotten a pass based on previous works? Or is Zach right that this is simply a slightly off effort from a cinematic master? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Next week: Mail Order Wife

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