Secrets, lies, sex and love: Broken Embraces has it all. Throw in some drug-laced gazpacho, homemade flan and a dark love triangle enshrouded in mystery, and Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film unfolds with the Spanish director’s signature sense of farce and deviance, but with new layers of intrigue and a mind-boggling -- and, one would hope, self-aware -- degree of melodrama.
Penélope Cruz plays Lena, a woman caught between two rich men who fall hopelessly in love with her, playing tug-of-war until her tragic death in a car accident. The film, which arrives on DVD Tuesday, begins 14 years after Lena’s accidental death when her true love, Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar), is compelled to tell the story to Diego (Tamar Novas), the son of his close friend and former colleague, Judit Garcia (Blanca Portillo). Mateo, it should be noted, is now not only blind (thanks to the accident), but also insists on being called by his unconvincing pseudonym, Harry Caine, in the belief that his when his main squeeze died, so did his former self.
Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. We learn through Harry’s flashbacks that Lena’s other lover, Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), was a pretty ruthless guy with no boundaries, ethics or lack of sex drive, despite his advanced age. With a son who still suffers the consequences of childhood neglect and being Daddy’s little henchman, Ernesto’s legacy comes back to haunt Harry all over again, through odd twists and surprising turns in the present-day.
Despite the big dose of heavy issues, Almodóvar hasn’t lost his sense of humor. While some of his classic devices offer comic relief during the film, Broken Embraces’ DVD features a handful of well-selected extras that not only highlight the director’s lighter side, but also offer a rare glimpse at the way he directs his favorite muse. One of the most ridiculous examples is a fake mini-segment, in which one of the characters in Mateo’s film-within-a-film has a raw, raucously funny soliloquy about sex and democracy. Chon, as she’s known in the movie (Carmen Machi), plays a city councilor who’s determined bring more pleasure into the public sphere -- and perhaps win a few votes in the meantime.
Another exceptional DVD extra is a short segment that uses side-by-side film prints to show how Almodóvar directs Cruz. The actress have appeared in several of his films, and, as she explains in another extra segment, has a close creative relationship and friendship with him. The side-by-side footage lets the rest of us take a peek at how they work. The famed director is behind the camera on the right, feeding her Lena’s internal monologue while the actress, appearing in her scene on the left, absorbs his direction while saying her lines. Like the rest of the film, there are subtitles, but it doesn’t need translation. It’s more than clear how intensely the two are tuned into each other, creatively and professionally.
While Broken Embraces features an incredible amount of over-wrought drama, it’s a fun ride with an adept director at the helm. Luckily, the DVD strips away enough of the grand pretense (except, maybe, Harry Caine’s) to let us savor some of the brilliance behind it.