Pedro Almodovar's latest film is both ravishing and ridiculous, a testament to his peerless directorial skills and his shallow obsessions with Hollywood iconography. As the hetero flipside to 2004's Bad Education, the film's another Hitchockian love letter (with nods to Douglas Sirk) to cinema, framing its chilly melodrama in noir intrigue and romantic tragedy.
A throwback to 1950s technicolor potboilers, Broken Embraces introduces us to blind screenwriter and former director Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), who is visited by mysterious young filmmaker Ray-X (Rubén Ochandiano). He's making a documentary about his father, a jealous and controlling millionaire (José Luis Gómez) whose gorgeous young wife (Penélope Cruz) had an affair with Harry 15 years ago. Needless to say, the outcome was tragic.
Almodovar bounces his narrative between 2009 and 1994, expertly threading the convoluted plot twists, time shifts, flashbacks and characters into a sumptuous tapestry of betrayal and voyeurism. Never mind that he's recycling ideas, motifs and themes, he's peerless in his ability to echo and reference other movies (including his own). Characters reveal themselves and their secrets, and Almodovar trains his focus on how appearance and concealment work together to mask our identities and emotions. Most characters have two names (Cruz has three), and nearly all harbor hidden truths.
But as elegant and superbly crafted as the film is, Almodovar keeps things detached, insulated and superficial. The romance is stiff, the characters' motives shallow, and minor but important plot threads get dropped in favor of movie-in-a-movie conceits. Eventually, it feels like you're watching a self-conscious exercise in filmmaking, not a story needing to be told. Without urgency, intimacy or ambition Broken Embraces' elaborate narrative, masterful acting and candy-colored set pieces feel like cinematic excess.
As he has done in past films, Almodovar gets drunk on his leading lady, lingering over Cruz like desire's ultimate object. But as delicate and vulnerable as she is in his psychosexual soap opera, her character is defiantly unknowable. Turned out in glamorous wigs and sexy, stylish outfits — one minute she's like Audrey Hepburn, the next Marilyn Monroe — Cruz is reduced to an alluring mannequin.
Even when he fails, Almodovar's a difficult filmmaker to criticize because he's so good at what he does. His Hitchcock fixation — particularly the deviances of Vertigo or Shadow of a Doubt — has resulted in an undeniable virtuosity, turning his trashy soap operas into a highbrow blend of florid melodrama, ironic commentary and filmmaking history. If only he created characters we actually care about.
At the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.