Nov 22, 2009

Broken Embraces

It's going to be extremely hard for Pedro Almodovar to top the miracle that is Volver. I stopped liking his movies long ago. He seemed to be ripping himself off and becoming his own tiresome cliché. Volver changed all that. It is a tender and magnificent film. His latest movie is a mixed bag that doesn't come close, but it is entertaining. Broken Embraces is his love letter to the movies and it is kitschy, self-referential, and wildly uneven. It is full of references, from Hitchcock to Douglas Sirk. It's a campy melodrama about a film director, who uses the pseudonym Harry Caine (Amodovar's own nom de plume when he wrote Women on the Verge...) who loses his eyesight because of his affair with an aspiring actress. This actress happens to be the formidable Penelope Cruz, who is getting better and somehow more gorgeous by the minute. She is a splendid actress and she drenches the screen with beauty and charisma. I was scouring my brains trying to find an American actress with the sexiness of some of the most memorable European actresses: Anna Magnani, Melina Mercouri, Sophia Loren, Jeanne Moreau, Carmen Maura, Victoria Abril, La Cruz. There are very powerful females in American film history: Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Frances McDormand, Glenn Close, etc. They all can be fabulous bitches on wheels. But sexy? Earthy? Goddesslike? I'm afraid none. That seems to have stopped with Rita Hayworth (Margarita Cancino, to you) and Marilyn Monroe. La Jolie was almost a candidate, but she has become an anorexic adoption machine and it is impossible to watch her and not think about the circus of her life. She has lost all semblance of sexiness. So the only one in my book who qualifies is Marisa Tomei -- an heiress to the tradition of strong and sexy Italian film actresses.
And then there is Penelope Cruz. And thank God for her, because just as women are Almodovar's strong suit, the men in his movies are a bunch of palurdos (loose translation: loxes). They are boring and uninteresting and, except for Bardem and Banderas, who alas, are not in this movie, sexless pieces of wood. Almodovar brings back some of the cast of Women on the Verge, because Harry Caine is directing a movie very similar to that. It's a treat to see Chus Lampreave (I'm still rooting for her as Spain's national monument), and the Picassoesque Rossy de Palma and the hilarious Carmen Machi and Lola Dueñas. Penelope Cruz plays the role created by Carmen Maura. It's all very complicated; long and slightly tedious in parts, and moving and funny in others. It's a self-homage and an homage to the movies and a bit of a hodgepodge. I was stunned to learn that the magnificent camerawork is by Rodrigo Prieto, who makes La Cruz look more beautiful than ever and who makes the Almodovar palette look more gorgeous than ever. I enjoyed the funny parts, but I do not care for the cheesy, over the top melodrama. I have no patience for campiness. And you have to have balls to pay homage to yourself.
This movie made me want to run out and see Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown again. And Matador. Those movies were really fun, bracing, and original. They are what made Almodovar a star.

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