Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces is, at its core, a familiar romantic triangle: A wealthy, powerful man helps his sexy younger mistress become an actress by agreeing to finance a filmmaker's latest project, with her in the lead, only to grow suspicious about the director and star's extracurricular relationship.
It's a backstage soap opera with noirish elements, but Almodovar — one of the most successful international "art house" filmmakers of the past couple of decades — enlivens the scenario with a twisty flashback structure, a sense of movie-love embodied in the dual films-within-a-film that factor into the plot, a palpable sense of nostalgia for his own early work, and a rapturous appreciation for his lead actress, Penelope Cruz, making her fourth film with him.
Broken Embraces opens in Madrid, 2008, in the apartment of blind screenwriter Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), who happens upon a news report on the death of wealthy businessman Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gomez). Harry's mind races back to 1992, to how he — then a sighted director named Mateo — met Ernesto and the woman, Lena (Cruz), who linked them. At the time, Lena was Ernesto's secretary, but after a family/financial emergency, he came to her aid and she became his lover.
In helping launch Lena's film career, Ernesto becomes the producer/financier of Mateo's latest comedy but charges his son, Ernesto Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano), with making a production documentary that serves as surveillance footage through which Ernesto watches Lena and Mateo fall in love. Ernesto's controlling but not unsympathetic cuckold is an archetypal noir figure; he might have been played by Edward G. Robinson or Claude Rains in the classic Hollywood version.
The two movies — Mateo and Lena's would-be comedy and Ernesto Jr.'s documentary — become prisms through which the romantic triangle is refracted and serve to deepen the film's overall tone of romantic obsession.
Almodovar opens Broken Embraces with a scene from one and concludes with a scene from the other. Indeed, Broken Embraces reaches its peak when the different levels collide, as when Lena discovers Ernesto watching a crucial "scene" from the production documentary and gives live voice to her own silent on-screen farewell, before both versions of Cruz turn to walk away.
Mateo's doomed film, a colorful comedy called Girls and Suitcases, is itself seemingly modeled on Almodovar's own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, with the 2008 Harry Caine's nostalgia for his lost 1990s film mirroring Almodovar's feelings for his own lighter early work.
At the center of this swirling, obsessive melodrama is Cruz. Such a satisfying spectacle in recent English-language films Nine and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Cruz is fully celebrated, even fetishized, here. At one point, Mateo/Almodovar sticks her in front of a dressing-room mirror and has her practicing reaction shots in a series of hairstyles that intentionally echo the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, insisting that Cruz is a screen icon worthy of the comparisons.
All of this might sound complicated or difficult, but Almodovar makes it flow easily. Broken Embraces never quite reaches a full boil, but it's a visually ravishing, shimmering soap opera and a thoroughly entertaining film.