The meta-cinematic play of Broken Embraces
There is a seminal moment in Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces (2009) when the blind protagonist Harry Caine (Lluís Homar) reaches out and touches a screen showing a pixelated image of his love Lena (Penelope Cruz). Caine’s assistant Diego (Tomar Novas) describes this recently discovered footage of the final moments between Harry and Lena before a car accident killed her and blinded him. The close-up of the grainy video footage with Caine’s hands caressing the screen is an apotheosis, reflecting the character’s sense of loss and guilt, but it also alludes to a paradoxical nature cinematic experience: how it reinforces yet blurs the boundaries between material and filmed ‘reality’, between presence and absence, between past and present, between the cognitive and the haptic, and between truth and fallacy. In Broken Embraces Pedro Almodóvar explores the dynamics of perception mediated through the mechanical technology and aesthetic language of film, perhaps even suggesting that subjectivity itself is fundamentally cinematic.
There are many reasons why we wanted to produce an episode of The Cinematologists Podcast around the work of Almodóvar. The influence of the director on Spanish and international cinema is powerful yet complicated. His early work evokes an unashamedly hyperbolic visual style fused with classical Hollywood tropes, pop culture debris, and a transgressive ideological outlook that challenged the shifting sensibilities of post-Franco Spain. A more serious, deeper tone is evidenced in later work, particularly in the 1990s, and with the release and success of All About My Mother (1999), from which Almodóvar’s status as an auteur within the European art-house tradition was cemented. Broken Embraces is a film that trades on many of his common thematic interests (identity, family, sexuality), emotional states (jealousy, betrayal, guilt) and aesthetic guises (melodrama, theatricality, vibrant colours). Furthermore, the complex, meandering plot with time shifts and multifaceted character arcs weave a Hitchcockian web; the influence of the master of suspense and arch-voyeurist on Almodóvar cannot be underestimated. But it is the film’s sense of referential knowingness, the structuring around the production process, its parodying of filmic cliché, and the multi-dimensional exploration of spectatorship that suggests Broken Embraces is a quintessential film about cinema.
It is in no way radical to suggest that filmmakers are obsessed with movies. Most can instantaneously reel off the directors and films that somehow influenced their narrative interests or visual style. Indeed, one could argue that the indulgent referencing of shallow postmodern pastiche is one of the more lamentable aspects of contemporary film. Cinema is much more fascinating when a filmmaker deploys the filmic language to reflexively address philosophical questions about the nature of the art form. The use of a meta-cinematic structure, a film within or about another film, is an oft-used structure for such interrogations and has resulted in canonical works. Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), Fellini’s 8½ (1963), Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (1963), Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) are all seminal examples of the meta-film that push the boundaries between reality and perspective to breaking point. Contemporary variations, such as Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai, Ming-Liang, 2003) Tony Manero (Pablo Larraín, 2008), Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012) The Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014) and Taxi Tehran (Jafar, Panahi, 2015), are perhaps indicative of a modern introspection or even anxiety around the cultural identity, social significance and even the technological and aesthetical parameters of cinema in the 21st century.
The sense that Almodóvar is still in love with cinema, however, radiates from Broken Embraces. He is perhaps the only director who gets away with such a consciously over-the-top, theatrical style while still being lorded as a serious auteur in the arthouse tradition. He possesses a paradoxically high-brow command of cinema’s aesthetic grammar, while simultaneously revelling in the trashy, the sentimental and the kitsch. Broken Embraces also explores the imagined construction and idealisation of female beauty with luminous Penelope Cruz in a role that trades on her star persona and riffs on the iconographies, not to mention the personal tragedies, of (Audrey) Hepburn and Monroe. That Almodóvar has a fascination with, and sensitivity to, the experience of women is clear, but here he also explores how seeing and being seen, again through the prism of ‘the cinematic’, creates a complex dynamic of power and subordination. Broken Embraces is a late period Almodóvar film that is perhaps somewhat overlooked but as with all his work it provokes emotional response, demands intellectual consideration and offers a flamboyant, yet highly aware sense of the cinematic.
Dr Dario Llinares and Dr Neil Fox will be introducing Broken Embraces and conducting a live Q&A after the screening at Curzon Bloomsbury on 21st August, 2:30pm, as part of The Cinematologists Podcast [www.cinematologists.com] and our Almodóvar retrospective.