Often, before a movie scene is filmed, the director and cinematographer will bring in the leading actors' stand-ins to light and frame the shot. The opening image of Pedro Almodóvar's Broken Embraces shows this process with a stand-in for Penélope Cruz. Then the star actress enters the frame. She looks so somber, as if she's about to read a death sentence her own.
Almodóvar is cherished worldwide for his movies' brio and wisdom, but the Spanish writer-director, who turned 60 in September, has been preoccupied with death and mourning in many of his prime films. He killed off important characters in the first reels of All About My Mother and Volver, then examined how the survivors coped with their loss or the urge for revenge. An underlying love for the dead or near dead stokes the main figures in Talk to Her and Volver. In each case the grieving is natural, respectful, votive. Also volcanic.
The first minutes of Broken Embraces announce the death of its star attraction, the actress Lena, played by Cruz. In the 14 years since her death, Lena has been deeply mourned by her lover Mateo (Lluís Homar), a movie director who was blinded in the same car crash that killed her. He now works under the playfully turbulent pseudonym Harry Caine, as in hurricane. He needed a new name, he says, because the real Mateo died with Lena. But now he learns of the death of Ernesto (José Luis Gómez), a wealthy businessman who financed Lena's entrance into movies and whom Mateo blames for her death. For the next two hours, Almodóvar suavely juggles the events of 1994 and 2008.
Broken Embraces isn't one of the master's all-time greats (it's a notch or two below All About My Mother and Talk to Her), but it's still complex, vivacious and emotionally resonant. Since the gynocentric Mother and Volver, and the guy-nocentric Bad Education, Almodóvar has returned to the plot structure of the noirish Live Flesh: the toxic romantic geometry of a triangle love story. In the world of telenovela melodrama that has long appealed to Almodóvar, jealousy must be twisted into violence at the top of a winding staircase, while lust collides with a dark fate on a highway with one too many cars.
And in the grand tradition of Hollywood multigenerational weepies, the sins of the fathers reverberate in their offspring. In 1994, on the set of the film Mateo was shooting with Lena, Ernesto's son was compiling a making-of featurette that was really a documentation of the director-actress tryst. In 2008, Ernesto Jr. is still skulking around, hoping or threatening to unearth bitter old truths. Also, Mateo's housekeeper and longtime friend has a son, sweet and smart, who assists Mateo. We'll learn that every supporting character is there for a reason.
Broken Embraces could be the title of nearly any Almodóvar film. His people are infirm creatures looking for a little hug that can be therapeutic or redemptive. The paraplegic cop played by Javier Bardem in Live Flesh doesn't shrug off sexual desire just because he's confined to a wheelchair. Almodóvar suffuses his new film with this notion of the crippled seeking help; nearly every plot point pivots on someone's infirmity. The message is clear: we are all invalids who want to walk, if the fates allow, into each other's arms.
The mood and tone here are less bustling than in earlier Almodóvars. This time his energy went into the dense plot scheme, with its duplication of characters and family dynamics. One thing hasn't changed: the director's skill at bringing out the star quality of his performers. Homar, a Spanish stage veteran, handsomely shoulders the weight of the film. As for Cruz, in her fourth Almodóvar film, she's never been more luminous, serious or sexy. Her Lena is woman enough to justify one man's need to possess or destroy her and another's desire to hold on to her for a lifetime. The emotions she stirs in her lovers are so intense, she has to die. Yet for Mateo, she's not a corpse but a ghost, a holy spirit.
Those who die young not just Lena but actors like James Dean and Heath Ledger, politicians like Jack and Bobby Kennedy are robbed of life but also of aging and decay. They are frozen at the apex of their beauty, power and promise. So lovers like Mateo, and movie lovers like the rest of us, have that perfect vision as a perpetual keepsake. Almodóvar knows it too: a dead love never dies.