Broken Embraces starts stodgily, builds to a spectacular middle, and then unravels at the end. The film’s pairings, doublings, frames-within-frames and films-within-films are fairly absorbing scene-by-scene but there’s ultimately a sense of anti-climax to the enterprise. After the relatively streamlined Volver, Almodóvar resorts to his old bad habit of piling on the plot and the final sections sink into a sea of exposition; pity poor Blanca Portillo, saddled with delivering some of the hokiest “revelations” that Almodóvar has yet devised. For Almodóvar buffs, it’s interesting to see the director revisiting Women on the Verge … with new muse Cruz replacing old muse Maura. But these sequences more than any others point to the film’s masturbatory, even self-congratulatory tone.
As usual, much has been made of the film’s genre blur - the shifts between comedy, melodrama, and noir - but the result isn’t the dynamic synthesis that Almodóvar has achieved in the past. There’s a distanced quality to Broken Embraces, and its swerves between genres are jarring. Lluis Homar’s Mateo and Penelope Cruz’s Lena go through a lot in this movie (blindness, beatings), but Almodóvar seems uninterested in the implications of their suffering - especially, it must be said, Lena’s. To some extent, Almodóvar uses Cruz here as he used Gael Garcia Bernal in Bad Education: more as prop than personality. She’s great to watch but remote, somehow. I’d have liked to have seen more of Angela Molina (who, in a few scenes as Lena’s mother, floods the film with emotion), and Lola Dueñas, whose sublime cameo as a lip-reader made me laugh out loud.
Nonetheless, we should be grateful that Almodóvar does more with the blind-director scenario than Woody Allen did in Hollywood Ending. He can still construct the kind of vibrant sequences that galvanise the viewer: Jose Luis Gomez’s Ernesto pushing Lena, Kiss of Death-style, down the stairs; Lena dubbing herself to Ernesto Hijo’s silent footage. The director also comes up with an indelible haptic image: the blind director touching the screen image of his lost beloved. Following the atypically asexual Volver, it’s pleasing to find Almodóvar feeling his oats again here, and showing his wit in an expertly filmed (if gratuitous) early sex scene. Yet, unlike the tempestuous couplings of Law of Desire and Live Flesh, Mateo’s love for Lena ultimately feels more like a simulacrum of passion than the real thing.
But of course Almodóvar’s characters have always lived through and by film, and Broken Embrace’s true subject is the romance of the reel. There remains, even now, a movie-struck energy and excitement to Almodóvar's work that few directors can match. For sheer exuberant visual pleasure, Broken Embraces takes some beating. I swooned more than I groaned.