Wednesday, May 11, 2011

2011 Cannes Film Festival Marathon: Broken Embraces

(Premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival in Competition for the Palme D’or)

2006’s Volver was a massive hit for Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar as it won the director various prizes including a Best Screenplay prize at the Cannes Film Festival while his ensemble of female actresses including longtime collaborator Penelope Cruz won the Best Actress prize at the festival. Even as Cruz received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress proving that Almdovar is still on top. Following a break, Almodovar re-teamed with Penelope Cruz for their fourth collaboration for a multi-layered project about love and its complications set in a noir setting entitled Los Abrazos Rotos (Broken Embraces).

Written and directed by Pedro Almodovar, Los Abrazos Rotos is a multi-layered film set into three different years about a blind writer reflecting on his years as a film director when he fell for a woman whose husband is a powerful businessman. A film that meshes film noir along with elements of mystery and Almodovar’s own brand of humor. It’s a film where Almodovar plays with genres where he pays tributes to 1950s American film noir while also having fun with his own work. Also starring Lluis Homar, Blanca Portillo, Tamar Novas, Ruben Ochandiano, Jose Luis Gomez, and appearances from Almodovar regulars Angela Molina, Rossy Palma, Lola Duenos, and Chus Lampreave. Los Abrazos Rotos is a stylish yet hypnotic film from Pedro Almodovar.

Once a great filmmaker until he turned blind, Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar) has been living his life as a writer who helps create scripts for other filmmakers under his preferred pseudonym Harry Caine. With help from his longtime agent/friend Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her adult son/club DJ Diego (Tamar Novas), Harry is able to get work while Diego aspires to be a screenwriter. When Harry learns that a millionaire named Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez) has died, he recalls the story about Martel’s mistress in a secretary named Magdalena (Penelope Cruz) back in 1992. Magdalena was a part-time hooker whom Ernesto was attracted to while he helped her cancer-stricken father be moved to a hospital.

During a busy day, Harry gets a visit from a man named Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano) wanting to work with him on a project. After pitching the project to Harry who doesn’t want to do it, Ray says something that Diego overhears as Harry realizes who it is as does Judit. Revealed to be Ernesto’s son, Judit orders Diego to watch for him while she has to go to the U.S. for business as he is also asked to watch over Harry. When Diego reveals to Harry about a script idea relating to vampire lovers, Harry helps him structure the story. Diego is excited by the idea of a script until he accidentally drinks something with a drug that got him sick. Harry learns what happens as he decides to be by his side as he tells Diego a story about Martel and Magdalena that Judit doesn’t want to tell.

Two years after helping Magdalena, she becomes Martel’s mistress while has aspirations to be an actress. Accompanied by Ernesto Jr., she auditions for Mateo that doesn’t go well at first until he wants to see her again. She gets a part for a comedy called Chicas y maletas (Girls and Suitcases) with Ernesto Jr. documenting everything in the production. Yet, Ernesto Jr. is really served as a spy for what happens as Martel is suspicious about Magdalena’s growing relationship with Mateo. Even as he hires a lip-reader (Lola Duenos) to help out where it becomes clear that Mateo and Magdalena are falling for each other. With Martel wanting to stop the affair by doing anything as possible to stop the production. Instead, the love grows strong where they go away for a while only to find out what Martel is doing to Mateo’s film as Harry through Diego learns what really happened to his film. Even as Judit, following her return from the U.S., confesses what’s happened along with the idea of why Ernesto Jr. has shown up to meet Harry.

The film is about a man reflecting on the woman he had loved and what happened when she is taken by the man she was with. Yet, it’s told largely through flashbacks along with a multitude of perspectives about this beautiful woman who would be the object of Mateo’s desires but also the ire of jealousy in a man named Martel. The story is told in four different worlds and periods. 1992 when Magdalena meets Martel. 1994 when Magdalena meets and falls for Mateo where around the same time, the film that Mateo is trying make is also told. The fourth and last piece is from 2008 where Mateo is now Harry Caine as he tells the story to Diego, who is keen on wanting to know the secret his mother has been keeping from him since Ernesto Jr.’s appearance.

The film has Almodovar not just playing with the noir genre as well as the mystery aspects as the character of Diego is the one trying to learn what has happened and how Harry became blind. With Diego playing the audience of sorts, he learns about Magdalena, Martel, Martel’s son, Harry when he was Mateo, and his own mother. Each of those individuals have their own motives and reasons for either keeping secrets or trying to reveal things. Yet, Almodovar doesn’t portray them as heroes nor villains but rather as human beings. Martel might seem like a true villain, it’s easy to think about that though he is someone so in love with Magdalena that he’s even tried to help her dying father.

Almodovar’s script does have a lot of dramatic elements for many of the film’s flashback sequences as it is an ode to film noir. Even as it includes a scene where Martel does something to Magdalena that is like a lot of noir films. The film within a film called Chicas y maletas is really Almodovar’s Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) with some changes as Almodovar gets a chance to make fun of himself. The mixture of noir, comedy, melodrama, and suspense would’ve made the film uneven but Almodovar is able to make it unify into a wonderful story that leaves the audience a chance to piece everything together.

Almodovar’s direction is definitely hypnotic in his framing as he often shoots scenes with a broad scope. Even if it’s an intimate room setting with two people in the frame just so the audience can look at the world they’re living in. The stylization of the shots from the noir-like compositions for many of the film’s dramatic moments to the vibrancy of the film that Mateo is making. Even in the scenes where Mateo and Magdalena go to the Lanzarote island where the canvas is much broader and the compositions are richer. Even in those scenes where the characters briefly speak English for a moment showing Almodovar going outside of the box. Almodovar also goes into the use of old-school video cameras for many of the material shot by Ernesto Jr. where there is a great scene where Magdalena says everything that’s needed to be said in Ernesto’s video. The direction overall is masterful as it shows Almodovar refining his style while taking on a few new ideas in the process.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto does a phenomenal job with the look of the film that ranges into a variety of moods. From the vibrant colors of the Chicas y maletas film to the noir-like look for many of the scenes at Martel’s home. Prieto’s photography is definitely a technical highlight of the film the way he shoots the stark but also peaceful world of Lanzarote to the world that is Madrid. Even as Prieto does some wonderful grainy camera for the film’s documentary footage.

Longtime Almodovar collaborator Jose Salcedo does a great job with the film’s editing. Particularly with its leisured pace and transitions in moving the film back and forth from flashback to present time. Salcedo’s cutting is mostly straightforward in its presentation but helps build the suspense slowly so the audience can get a chance to figure out what is going on.

Production designer Antxon Gomez, along with art director Victor Molero and set decorators Marta Blasco and Pilar Revuelta, does a fabulous job with the set pieces from the apartments that Harry and Judit live in along with the lavish home of Martel that represents his persona. Costume designer Sonia Grande does an excellent job with the costumes from the casual clothes that everyone wears to the stylish, dazzling dresses that Magdalena wears throughout the entire movie and such. Sound editor Peyalo Gutierrez and mixer Miguel Rejas do a wonderful job on the sound from the way shoes are heard when people are walking on marble floors to the atmosphere of the film set.

The film’s score by longtime Almodovar associate Alberto Iglesias is amazing for its dramatic orchestral score that plays to the noir tone of the film. Even as Iglesias mixes his Spanish folk sound with an orchestra to portray not just Mateo’s longing for Magdalena but also Martel’s jealousy. Iglesias’ work is truly superb while the rest of the soundtrack features a swelling orchestral piece from Miguel Poveda, a couple of electronic tracks, a piece by Can, and a cover of Michael Hurley’s Werewolf by Cat Power that plays to the haunting tone of the film.

The casting by Luis San Narciso does a superb job with the casting as the film includes numerous cameos from many of Almodovar’s array of regular actors and collaborators. Among them include Rossy de Palma, Carmen Machi, and Chus Lampreave as characters from Chicas y maletas along with Angela Molina as Magdalena’s mother, Kiti Manver as Magdalena’s brothel boss, Mariola Fuentes as an assistant of Mateo, and Lola Duenos as a lip-reader for Martel. Other notable small roles include Kira Miro as a model whom Harry would have sex with early in the film along with Alejo Sauras as a friend of Diego’s, and Ramon Pons as Magdalena’s dying father. Ruben Ochandiano is excellent as the devious Ray X who hopes to blackmail Harry while as Ernesto Jr., is a young filmmaker with long hair and pimples on his face who is desperate to become a filmmaker.

Tamar Novas is superb as Diego, Harry’s longtime assistant who aspires to be a writer while learning about the secrets that Harry has kept while becoming the man who helps Harry piece the missing pieces of the puzzle. Jose Luis Gomez is great as Ernesto Martel, a man who loves Magdalena but couldn’t bear to see her with another man as his desperation to have her would lead to some unimaginable things. The film’s best supporting performance definitely goes to longtime Almodovar regular Blanca Portillo as Judit, a longtime associate of Mateo/Harry who is haunted by Ray’s presence. Portillo does a magnificent job in portraying a troubled carrying secrets while admitting to her own guilt while not making her character pathetic despite her actions and motives.

Penelope Cruz is radiant in her role as Magdalena where she encompass all styles of beauty including an ode to the late, great Audrey Hepburn. While it may not top her performance in Volver, Cruz is able to showcase her range by being funny and relaxed in some moments while being dramatic and melancholic in other scenes. It’s definitely one of her best roles to date. Finally, there’s Lluis Homar in a spectacular performance as Mateo Blanco/Harry Caine. For Mateo, Homar plays a man who is an accomplished artist who finds a muse in Magdalena and falls for her. When he’s Harry Caine, he’s a man who still has some charm but also some regret over what happens while wondering what went wrong. It’s a mesmerizing role for Homar who is definitely one of the best actors working today internationally.

Los Abrazos Rotos is a remarkable yet spellbinding noir-thriller from Pedro Almodovar and company featuring top-notch performances from Penelope Cruz and Lluis Homar. Fans of Almodovar will definitely see this as another winning achievement from the renowned Spanish auteur. Even as his collaboration with Cruz, in four films so far, has cemented their place as one of the best director-actor collaborations in film. In the end, Los Abrazos Rotos is a chilling yet hypnotic film from Pedro Almodovar.

© thevoid99 2011

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