Let's get this out of the way. Penélope Cruz is stunning. Ravishing. To sit in the dark and gaze at her image on a giant screen - that's why God made the movies. And it is lovely that in films like All About My Mother, Volver and, now, Broken Embraces, the Spanish director and screenwriter Pedro Almodóvar seems to have found in her a muse, as Josef von Sternberg did in Marlene Dietrich, as John Waters did in Divine.
That said, although Cruz is arresting in Broken Embraces, and although Almodóvar has made an interesting statement here, "interesting" is the strongest compliment I can muster. That's largely because of the film's convoluted structure. There are two interweaving stories, one of which, the meatier one, is told in flashback. There is a movie within the movie. There is what you might call the director's cut of the movie within the movie. There is a video documentary about the making of the movie within the movie. And there is lots of metatextual stuff about moviemaking and movie-watching, and voyeurism and dual identities and playacting, and beautiful women on giant screens, and a hefty dose of Hitchcock homage. I find all this distracting.
At the center of Broken Embraces is Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), a Madrid screenwriter. He is blind. We learn something important about Harry's sensibility early on, when he seduces a beautiful woman, a new acquaintance who has just helped him cross the street. He lives a successful, if regimented, life, aided by his agent Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas), a would-be writer with a knack for spinning records and a taste for club drugs. Into Harry's home office one day comes a young man named Ray (Rubén Ochandiano), who wants to make a film about a vengeful son. Harry turns him down. It seems that Harry recognizes him.
Then begins the unspooling of a second story. Ray is the son of Ernesto (José Luis Gómez), a disgraced businessman who has just died. In a series of flashbacks to Barcelona in the early 1990s, we learn that Ernesto's much younger secretary and mistress Lena (Cruz) wants to act in the movies, and so she lands a role in a film directed by Harry and produced by Ernesto. In the flashbacks Harry is not blind, and he goes by another name, Mateo Blanco.
Ernesto is jealous, the kind of guy who, in movies, sits alone in a dark room, seething. So he gives his son Ray a job, ostensibly taping a documentary about the making of the film. But Ray actually is taping the comings and goings of Lena and Mateo, who begin an affair. The scenes in which Ernesto reviews Ray's footage are extraordinary. He watches the affair unfold on a huge screen as, next to him, an employee reads the lovers' lips and drably reports what they're saying.
Then comes much that is explosive - shocking revelations, a pivotal act of violence. Amusingly to this movie critic, a climactic sequence begins when a terrible movie review runs in the newspaper.
There is a lot to think about in Broken Embraces, but Almodóvar's nervous technique keeps reminding me: You're watching a movie. As a theoretical exercise, that's fascinating, I suppose. But this is essentially a genre film, what might have been a suspenseful thriller. In Almodóvar's hands, it's something more complicated. I'm not convinced that's a good thing.