Sunday, December 27, 2009

Broken Embraces

(Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2009)

A virtuosic performance by Almodovar and his cohorts (especially Penelope), but while the film is sumptuous and eye-catching and jam-packed with internal references and echoes, there is very little dimension to the characters. They are all put through the emotional wringer, more or less, but it doesn't feel as if anything vital is at stake - the characters feel like they're theoretically complex, but the director fails to make us actually care about them. Of course, it isn't clear that 3-D characterization is Almodovar's top priority - it seems more that he's content to dazzle us on a formal level. That's all well and good for about two thirds of the movie, but it isn't enough to make the whole thing hang together, and the experience ends up feeling rather flat.

If I had to guess, I'd say that Almodovar is actually interested in a cake-and-eat-it kind of deal - that he's fascinated by all the inter-textual resonance and cool detachment, and that he wants us to be fascinated too, but he's also trying to tell a good, juicy story. But the themes that he touches on (without ever really exploring at any depth, ie. performance and identity, the irretrievability of the past, and patrimony, to name a few; there are plenty) are intrinsically heavy, and their emotional significance ends up being muted. There are moments and scenes in which the emotional stakes are very high, but they feel desultory, bracketed by clever little melodramatic and comedic trifles. Both of these are strong suits for Almodovar - comedy and melodrama - but in Broken Embraces he doesn't manage to compose anything that hangs together - it's elegantly slapdash, but still slapdash.

That sense of inconsistency is the root of the problem. It's as if Pedro has contracted a case of cinematic ADD - he's trying everything in this film without ever investing his full attention in the piece overall. This incoherence extends to the film on a formal level - there are several shots that display his expert sense of visual balance and rhythm - but there are others that stood out as awkwardly edited, even some genuine visual non-sequitors that smacked more of error than of idiosyncrasy.

All of which shouldn't be taken to mean that the film isn't enjoyable - it is, mostly. But it's frustrating for not being as enjoyable as it could be if the director would just take a deep breath and concentrate on doing something besides impressing everybody. Trust the story, Pedro. Less is more.

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