Thursday, May. 14, 2009

Broken Embraces: Pedro, Penélope and a Passion Beyond Death

Often, before a movie scene is filmed, the director and cinematographer will bring in the leading actors' stand-ins to light and frame the shot. The first image of Pedro Almodóvar's Broken Embraces shows this process with Penélope Cruz's stand-in. Then the star actress enters the frame. She looks so somber, as if she's about to read a death sentence — her own.

Cruz's character is dead, and deeply mourned, at the beginning of Almodóvar's new film, his first since Volver three years ago. Not one of the Spanish master's all-time greats — it's in a class below that of All About My Mother or Talk to Her — the movie is nonetheless complex, vivacious and emotionally resonant. After the gynocentric dramas All About My Mother and Volver, and the all-boy Bad Education, Almodóvar has returned to the basic plot structure of the noirish Live Flesh: the toxic romantic geometry of a triangle love story. (See pictures of the Cannes 2009 red carpet.)

Casting his new film, a writer-director, Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar), auditions Lena (Cruz), the mistress of Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), a wealthy businessman who has helped finance the project. At first suspicious of Lena because of her connection to Ernesto, Mateo is soon smitten by her vital beauty. She feels the same seismic urge. They tumble into a rapturous affair, which is monitored by Ernesto through his son Ernesto Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano), a wan lad who is shooting a making-of featurette that is really a documentation for his father of the Lena-Mateo tryst. In the world of telenovela melodrama that has so long appealed to Almodóvar, jealousy must twist into violence at the top of a winding staircase, and passion will collide with dark fate on a highway with one too many cars.

All this occurs in 1994. Fourteen years later, Mateo, left blind by the crash, now signs his script with the playfully turbulent pseudonym Harry Caine, as in hurricane. He needed a new name, he says, because the real Mateo died with Lena in the crash. Harry is cared for by his longtime assistant Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her sweet, smart college-age son Diego (Tamar Novas). Or perhaps a young woman he has met on the street will show sympathy by reading him the newspaper and sharing her sexual bounty on his couch. This pretty stranger reads to him the news of Ernesto's death. Then Ernesto Jr., with his own pseudonym of Ray X, comes visiting with the promise or threat of unearthing the dreadful events of 1994.

Almodóvar, who will turn 60 in September, has been preoccupied with death and mourning in many of his later films. He killed off important characters in the first reels of All About My Mother and Volver, then examined how their survivors cope with grief or the need for revenge. An undying love for the dead or near dead stokes the main figures in Talk to Her, Volver and Broken Embraces. The feeling isn't one of derangement, as in Lars von Trier's Cannes offering Antichrist, in which grieving becomes psychotic; it's natural, votive, respectful — an acknowledgment, both simple and profound, that love doesn't die when a loved one does. (See a TIME video with Almodóvar and Cruz.)

Broken Embraces might be the title of nearly any Almodóvar film; his people are infirm creatures looking for a little hug that could be therapeutic or redemptive. The paraplegic cop played by Javier Bardem in Live Flesh hasn't renounced sexual desire just because he's confined to a wheelchair. The director suffuses his new film with this notion of the crippled seeking help; virtually every plot point pivots on someone's infirmity. Lena's father, with stomach cancer, needs hospital care, so she rents herself, body but not soul, to Ernesto, who also finances the recuperation of Judit's son Diego. Lena's broken leg sends her and Mateo off to a lovers' retreat. Later, the blind Mateo is cared for by Judit and Diego. Almodóvar's message is clear: We are all invalids who want to walk, if the fates allow, into one another's arms.

The mood and tone here are less bustling than in earlier Almodóvars. Until the end, when the director stages a scene from his 1988 comedy hit Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the director's familiarly gaudy pop-art color scheme is replaced by a subtler, more subdued palette. This time his energy went into the dense plot scheme, with its duplication of characters (Mateo and Harry, real Lena and remembered Lena) and family dynamics (Ernesto and his son, Judit and Diego). To extend the theme of double identities, Almodóvar has made a short companion film to his new feature, La concejala antropófaga ("The Cannibal Councilwoman"), under the directorial nom d'auteur Mateo Blanco and the screenwriter pseudonym Harry "Hurricane" Caine.

One thing hasn't changed: Almodóvar's old-fashioned Hollywood-maestro skill at bringing out the star quality of his performers. Homar, a Spanish stage veteran, handsomely shoulders the weight of the film, looking quite like a more purposeful, muscular Kelsey Grammer (or, to TV fans, Frasier Crane). And Cruz, in her fourth film with Almodóvar, makes Broken Embraces soar. She's never been more luminous, serious or sexy — enough to justify one man's need to possess her and another's to hold on to her forever.

How do we reconstitute a love we have lost? Through memory: by creating a scrapbook of incidents once shared, and small gestures that now are poignant and precious. A director like Mateo/Harry has a more concrete method: replaying the scenes he shot of his inamorata and recutting the film. "Films have to be finished," Almodóvar's director says, "even if you do it blindly." She deserves that tribute, and so does he; for on film he can somehow see the dead Lena alive again — the cinematic stand-in for a love beyond death.

See the top 10 movie performances of 2008.