Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Broken Embraces

Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces, Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 2009)
OK, some of you may be aware of my love/hate relationship with Pedro Almodóvar. I love elements of his films and hate others. I saw his latest film tonight and need to brain dump. Apologies for any lack of coherence; I could write a whole lot more but don't have the time. I do, however, welcome any feedback and am happy to discuss my opinions or yours, whether you agree with me or not.

In case you're wondering, my Week in Review for last week has been quickly written but requires a basic proof-read. I simply haven't had the time, but hope to post it in the next day or so.

Absent fathers and their now adult sons constitute a recurring theme in Almodóvar films, not surprising given that the director reportedly grew up without his father. In visiting and revisiting the theme, one wonders what Almodóvar is trying to say, given that this potentially heavy subject is usually treated with frivolity or even disdain. The subject appears repeatedly in Almodóvar’s seventeenth film, Broken Embraces, a film that is perhaps his most subdued, nuanced and finely-written, at least of those he has written alone*1. In spite of this compliment, the climactic nature of a crucial revelation is completely undermined by the director shooting himself in the foot – yet again.

One of my biggest criticisms of Almodóvar’s films (and I have many), is his mixture of genres often undermine each other. In Volver, the dramatic tension of a killing is completely defused when it is later treated trivially. A body is revealed to the neighbours and then it’s like “oh, what’s for dinner?” Broken Embraces keeps melodrama to a simmer (for Almodóvar) and the comic elements are thankfully largely absent. Almodóvar spends the best part of two hours setting up a relatively serious story, and when we arrive at the climax (which one can see coming at least an hour away), again it’s ho-hum and the person involved is not the least bit interested. Given Almodóvar’s restraint (welcome as it is, it doesn’t always work), this was a big disappointment and the low-point of the film. It confirms to me once again that Almodóvar simply doesn’t have what it takes to write his own films*2 and would benefit greatly by collaborating with others.

I was surprised by Almodóvar’s restraint in this film. Knowing the basic premise before-hand, I went into the cinema a little cynically, thinking that this would be just more of the same Almodóvar. Having watched all his films at least once (and most of them in close succession), it seems to me that he keeps repeating himself, referencing not just other famous films, but even his own (which he does in this film, too, but more on that later). So a story about a director who falls for his star, whose elderly husband has rejected his gay son didn’t sound overly welcoming to me. The restraint is welcome and yet at times feels laboured and too long. Unusual for Almodóvar, the film tends towards boring at times.

That’s in spite of Penélope Cruz’s breasts, which we get to see not once, but twice. And another gorgeous babe’s as well. For me, it’s just ho-hum, like “so bloody what?”. The view of them on each occasion is so set up, so contrived, like any other artifice in an Almodóvar film – and let’s face it, an Almodóvar film is simply one artifice after another. I love sex and nudity in film as much as anyone, but I found the handling of them in this film quite tacky and distasteful.

Almodóvar raves about Cruz and her acting techniques, but it’s all hype. OK, she can shed tears on tap, so what? There comes a point in time when the repetition become boring and self-conscious. And promoting her as if she were the most beautiful woman on earth? Oh per-lease! She’s ten year’s past her prime – not that there’s anything wrong with that – but if this is how she’s going to allow herself to be represented, then her longevity as an actress is about to wear out.

Almodóvar trademark misandry is given a light treatment in the film. It’s still there, as it is in virtually every one of his films, but perhaps not quite so overtly. It’s main manifestation is in the depiction of Ernesto Sr., the magnate who acquires who and what he wants, to the detriment of others. Most of the other males assume roles as artists or musicians of one sort or another and as usual, Almodóvar treats this class of male much more sympathetically (get it? Gays and artists are OK, all other males are bastards). And - yet again - women can do no wrong. We can forgive their sins, no matter how massive, because they're such loving and adoring mothers. This, quite frankly, is becoming increasingly tedious in its repetition from one Almodóvar film to another.

Another Almodóvar device that I have pointed out previously is his depictions of drug use, as if it were a natural and normal part of society. In my opinion, illegal drugs are one of the many scourges of modern society and while the liberation of Spanish society from the repressive Franco period may have been welcome, the consequent proliferation of drugs there (and anywhere else) is anything but good. I don't see why Almodóvar needs to keep hammering home in a subliminal manner that drugs are OK.

The colour red is a recurring aesthetic in virtually all of Almodóvar’s films, varying stylistically from film to film. In his more frivolous comedies (like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Kika), the colours are even more heightened, or sometimes pastels. In one sense, the frequent appearance of red in Broken Embraces is expected, and I tend to feel it gets too predictable and contrived. Aesthetically, I still find his use of colour very pleasing and it’s variation from film to film minimises the impact of the contrivance. The use of colour in this film is different to any of this other films. It tends more towards natural tones – blues, greens and greys – reflecting the more serious tone of the film, but highlighting the reds when they appear. I have mixed feelings about this because I sense that Almodóvar is perhaps just a bit too conscious of his auteurship and wanting to stamp his signature on each of his films. It seems to me that he doesn’t have enough new ideas and just keeps recycling the same tricks over and over again.

There’s a Tarantino-esque moment (think Inglourious Basterds) of grand self-evaluation at the end of the film when the film within a film is deemed to be a masterpiece. That 'film' is basically an amalgam of various Almodóvar films like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Kika and others, using previously used scenarios like gazpacho with sleeping tablets, a burning mattress, and both zany production design and characters. It’s obviously planted as an indulgence, a conceit, to be especially appreciated by Almodóvar’s fans. It certainly made me smile.

My conclusion: if you like Almodóvar, chances are you'll like this one. It shows that the man's work is evolving but again falls well short of greatness. This film, in spite of welcome restraint, is laboured. For what it's worth, the missus was bored shitless and wanted to leave early. Out of a possible five stars, she would give it zero - yes, zero stars! I don't usually discuss films in terms of such numeric terms, but if I were to, I'd give it three and a half.

*1 Four of Almodóvar’s films credit co-writers – and tend to be among my Almodóvar favourites: Labyrinth of Passion (Terry Lennox), Matador (Jesús Ferrero), Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (Yuyi Beringola) and Live Flesh (Jorge Guerricaechevarría).

*2 Of course, many love Almodóvar, and consider him a darling of European auteurs. He’s obviously capable of writing but his work, in my opinion, never exceeds a basic level of capability. It’s sufficient for an audience that welcomes quirkiness, but it’s never great, never profound. Rather, it’s just entertaining on a superficial level.


Jurguens said...

I was reading this post and laughing all the way through. I've always watched Almodovar movies trying to understand to why he is so revered. I've enjoyed some of his movies, but as you say:

"his work, in my opinion, never exceeds a basic level of capability. It’s sufficient for an audience that welcomes quirkiness, but it’s never great, never profound. Rather, it’s just entertaining on a superficial level"

I couldn't have expressed it better.

Oh, and I think Peneleope Cruz is just an average actress with a pretty face. Nothing more, nothing less. So I really enjoyed your comments about her.

Great rant mate

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for the comments, Jurgens. I think as a Spaniard, you probably see Almodovar through different eyes to us non-Spanish. My observation is that most cinephiles either love Almodovar's films or are indifferent - few say they actually dislike them.

I think Almodovar is capable of being a great director, though if that was going to happen, you'd think he'd have achieved it by now. There's a gravity to his work that's missing. Aesthetically and stylistically I find him brilliant at times, but he keeps - as I mentioned - shooting himself in the foot. He sets up some dramatic situation that engages an audience, only to destroy it with slapstick. I know that he professes to love mixing genres, but this just doesn't work.

I think my post is more than a rant, Jurgens, but I accept the compliment. ;)

Jurguens said...

I agree with your analysis, and sorry about the "rant", I use that word too often... and yes, of course, your post is much more than a rant.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

We've had this fight so many times before. But I can't help it.

"In visiting and revisiting the theme, one wonders what Almodóvar is trying to say, given that this potentially heavy subject is usually treated with frivolity or even disdain."

Exactly. Potentially heavy stuff is routinely exploited for earnest drama. In the way Almodovar tackles it though, he undermines the patriarchy that Spanish society is still very much founded upon, condemns absent fathers for the hollow bastards they usually are, and (more in other films than Embraces specifically) gives the sons a sense of earned dignity and survivalism.

"In Volver, the dramatic tension of a killing is completely defused when it is later treated trivially."

This doesn't kill the dramatic tension, this elevates an exciting plot device into the startling entry point into a unique, patently complex vision of humanity and the world. It makes you think, hang on, I've been taking too many things for granted, let's revise.
Treating a killing in a solemn way isn't intrinsically interesting or somehow worthier - it's ordinary, cliched really, and exploitative. Treating a killing in a personal, idiosyncratic way is transfixing and brings meaning. The first way would be superficial, the second way is precisely what makes it profound.

Re: the sex scenes - they are the most visually inventive and immersive sex scenes since Lust, Caution at least. If you want tacky and distasteful, or tame, watch The Departed (or just about any American film where the woman is inevitably unclothed first, then has to keep her expensive bra on and look submissive and embarrassed throughout).

As for Penelope Cruz, Almodovar and by now half the world are raving about her acting simply because she has been following up one detailed, astounding performance with another for about 5 years now. In that credit sequence alone, her silent face gives you a sense of a romantic and passionate history perhaps even more tantalising than the one the film actually delivers. In fact, her performance even transcends the film - the final third where she's barely on screen tends to drag a bit precisely because it lacks the passion and star persona she brings to the rest of the film. And I'm not gonna make any arguments about her beauty. No, wait, I will - since to argue otherwise is just so blatantly slap-my-forehead WTF? I am a content gay man and for her (and, coincidentally, her sister) I would switch teams in a second. Plus, her beauty is of the Sophia Loren brand of classical glamour.

As for Almodovar's depiction of drugs, it's perfectly justified to present them as a casual part of life in this film, since that is absolutely what they are in the kind of gay club where the drug taking is taking place. Since this drug taking very nearly leads to the tragic death of an otherwise likable character, both the overt and subliminal sense you take out from this film is that drugs are certainly not OK.

As you're well aware I worship Almodovar. Volver and Talk to Her are my 2 top films of the decade (give or take Kings and Queen, Brokeback Mountain or 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Though I still loved Embraces, I actually find it slightly disappointing - as did every other Almodovar acolyte I've spoken to. But all of us have only seen this once and every Almodovar film requires at least two viewings for you to take in the multiple layers of genius.

Except for Matador and Labyrinth of Passion - the latter in particular is the absolute nadir of his career and I can't believe you would argue it's among his strongest.

Okay, there. I'm done. x