Saturday, October 10, 2009

NYFF ’09: Broken Embraces

It seems a renaissance of sorts is underway for Pedro Almodóvar’s breakout film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Rumor has it a book musical adaptation is on the fast-track to Broadway. Almodóvar also resurrects Verge as the recognizable film within his new film, the noirish drama Broken Embraces (trailer here), which closes the 2009 New York Film Festival tomorrow night.

Harry Caine could easily be a character in a Cornell Woolrich novel. That is because Harry Caine does not really exist. He was once the famous director Mateo Blanco, who wrote scripts under the Caine pseudonym. When a traumatic accident led to his blindness, Blanco the director essentially died, with Caine the screenwriter assuming his place.

Caine might be blind, but he still has an eye for women and though he can no longer direct, he still has an appreciation for cinema, frequently listening to art-house classics with Diego, the son of his agent Judit Garcia. Not one to dwell on the past, Caine rebuffs the interview requests of Ray X, an aspiring documentarian and the son of an old acquaintance. However, as Caine finds himself nursing Diego back to health following an incident with a laced drink, he starts to open up to younger man, telling his story in flashback form.

Mateo Blanco was the writer and director of Girls and Suitcases. It starred Lena Rivero, the mistress of industrialist Ernesto Martel, who financed the picture. Garcia, who had once had a fling with Blanco, was his trusted production manager. Basically, it was a classic film noir situation, virtually guaranteed to breed jealousy and betrayal.

Not coincidentally, Suitcases bears a strong resemblance to Verge, except it is awful, deliberately assembled with Blanco’s worst takes by a vengeful Martel. It is an oddly amusing exercise in self-referential gamesmanship, but only one of many cinematic pastiches in Broken. Rodrigo Prieto’s ominously gauzy cinematography is arguably more reminiscent of Hitchcock’s color films of the 1950’s and 1960’s then 1940’s noir.

Almodóvar also frequently nods to the post-war Italian neo-realists, like Rossellini, whose Viaggio in Italia moves the furtive lovers to tears as they watch it in each others arms. In fact, Broken’s key art appears to be modeled after the classic posters of post-war Italian cinema.

Though Broken often has a noir vibe, whenever the film approaches genuine film noir territory, Almodóvar deliberately pulls back, undercutting the thriller aspects. Aside from a few key scenes, the violence of Broken is emotional rather than physical in nature. Yet, it is suffused with a strange romanticism for cinema. Indeed, the moving image, be it classic films or videotape of his fateful accident, may well be more powerful than real life for Caine—a constant and enduring force inexorably shaping his life.

Unlike the dramatically extroverted Verge, Broken is a more self-consciously intellectual film. Yet, Lluis Homar is quite riveting as Caine/Blanco, finding intriguing nuances throughout each stage of his character’s development. In a sense, Penelope Cruz is also perfectly cast as Lena, an austere beauty who remains something of a cipher throughout the film.

Broken is a dark, lush love-letter to cinema. While it might come across as a bit cold in comparison to some of Almodóvar’s more hot-blooded films, it is ultimately a very satisfying twist on the portrait-of-the-filmmaker-as-a-suffering-artist subgenre of art film. It closes this year’s NYFF on Sunday (10/11).