Pedro Almodóvar has always dabbled in the Hitchcockian tropes of uxoricide, betrayal, and double-identity, but with Broken Embraces he has attained a polyglot, if slightly mimicking, fluency with the language of Hollywood noir. A story within a story and a movie within a movie, Embraces begins in the present day with middle-aged Catalan Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), a blind screenwriter who takes time between his successful writing career to seduce and bed young women sympathetic to his disability. "Everything's already happened to me," he explains to his manager, Judit (Blanca Portillo). "All that's left is to enjoy life." But this life of empty pleasures is brought to a sudden halt when Judit reports that a local business magnate Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) has died; soon after, Ernesto Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano), who has renamed himself Ray X, visits Caine with an unusual request. Judit's son, Diego (Tamar Novas), who is also Caine's secretary, is a witness to these strange circumstances and inquires into the mysterious past of Caine.
To wit, the action retreats 14 years when Caine was a young (and visually abled) director named Mateo Blanco. In the classic noir set-up, Blanco encounters a breathtaking femme fatale, Lena (Penelope Cruz) -- an actress-turned-prostitute named Severine, turned secretary-turned-trophy wife of Ernesto Martel -- when she appears to audition for his latest movie, Girls and Suitcases. As Lena's marriage with the aging Martel is one of convenience, she quickly engages in a torrid off-camera affair with Mateo. But their tryst is compromised by the constant presence of Ernesto Jr., who has been tapped by his father to shoot a behind-the-scenes "documentary" of Lena and Mateo for his own private consumption. When the secret is exposed with the help of a freelance lip-reader (in a classic Almodóvarian scene), the fates of Mateo, Lena, Ernesto, and Judit collide with tragic consequences.
If all of the narrative intricacies and multiplicitous identities in Broken Embraces appear a bit intimidating at first glance, it is because this is the cinema of Almodóvar taken to a kind of generic extreme. As with all of the director's post-'00 films -- All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002), Bad Education (2004), and Volver (2006) -- which are often referred to as Almodóvar's "mature" pictures, there is a microscopic attention to narrative development combined with a frenzied sub-plotting of nearly soap-operatic proportions. But, in Embraces, formalism attains such prominence that one might speculate the director is simply going through the motions. The effect is a purposely loquacious and overly-dramatized performance that pleasures itself as much by setting up the plot as unraveling it. So, throughout the overlong 127 minute film, two distinct types of scenes become readily apparent: those which are Almodóvar at his best -- arriving with a striking visual and musical style and leaving one nearly breathless; and Almodóvar at his worst -- those which are purely convention, lumber about far too long and veer into dialogic minutiae. If the audience can withstand these long-winded asides, the cinematic prize is great indeed.
For a obsessive appropriationist, Almodóvar has never been so blatantly referential as he is in Broken Embraces. Apart from the most obvious nods to Hitchcock, the director has included scenic love-letters to Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), Roberto Rossellini's Voyage to Italy (1954), and Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place (1950). Those fans of Almodóvar's 80s comedies will even recognize the director's send-up of his own oeuvre in Girls and Suitcases, a potpourri of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) and What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984) Whether or not this confirms that the young iconoclast Almodóvar has, in his old age, become an unashamed nostalgic merits some debate. But, regardless of the verdict, Broken Embraces proves itself to be an impressive lexicon.
Broken Embraces opens Fri/18 in San Francisco.