EDITOR’S NOTE: This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.
Pedro Almodovar offers nothing new in his latest feature, “Abrazos Rotos” (“Broken Embraces”), but that’s probably enough for his devout followers. With solid performances and a script that’s never too hard on the ears, Spain’s superstar director merely repeats the themes and conflicts of his greatest hits. With secretive family issues, tortured artists, melodramatic events and slight humor all in play, Almodovar dutifully plays to his base.
Set in present day Madrid, the story revolves around Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), a blind film director and writer who works under the pseudonym Harry Caine, a personality in which he subsumed himself after his wife died in the car crash years earlier that left him without his sight. Despite this traumatic background, Mateo comes across as a shrewd and unreasonably jolly presence, although that might result from his blatant attempt to avoid grieving for his loss. However, it also turns him into a rambunctious ladies’ man, which sets up the central conflict of the movie.
One of them, anyway. The cumulative impact of “Abrazos Rotos” cancels itself out with a far too dense network of plot points and tangential complications. The director and his team of actors — many of whom regularly appear in his movies — never lack the ability to deliver a watchable scene, but the movie can’t settle into a single cogent groove.
After we watch Mateo spend his time contemplating projects with his longtime friend Judit (Blanca Portillao) and her aspiring screenwriter son (Tamar Novas), “Broken Embraces” introduces Lena (Penelope Cruz), a troubled actress hopelessly entangled in an unhappy marriage to her much older former boss, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). The characters’ lives converge when Lena auditions for a role in Mateo’s next project, “Girl and Suitcases,” and falls for him. As he tries to get a handle on Ernesto’s rage while maintaining a grip on his creativity, Mateo continues to prevent himself from feeling sorrow over the loss of his wife.
But wait, as they say, there’s more: Mateo deals with the creepy presence of a man calling himself Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano) suffering from serious hate for his neglectful father, which he hopes to turn into a screenplay. Judit reveals a curiously underplayed secret about the identity of her son’s father, and Ernesto takes serious measures to prevent Mateo from completing his movie. Despite the reliance on elements of film noir and related genres, “Abrazos Rotos” mainly functions as a statement on the filmmaking process. “Films have to be finished,” Mateo concludes, “even if you do it blindly.” (It’s not the greatest moment in the history of wordplay.)
Despite the redundancy, there’s very little hyperbole involved in the suggestion that Almodovar can’t direct a bad scene. “Abrazos Rotos” flows naturally from moment to moment; it simply never amounts to a satisfactory whole, leaving no strong impression akin to the “Vertigo”-esque twist in Almodovar’s “Volver” or the surrealist flourishes in his wonderful early features, such as “Matador.” However, it does acknowledge the strengths of those works. As earlier reviews have pointed out, Mateo’s movie-within-the-movie unquestionably echoes Almodovar’s “Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” forcing an autobiographical quality on the entire production. By inserting his own legacy, Almodovar renders his complicated plot irrelevant, since the real star of the show is the director himself.