The latest film from Pedro Almodóvar, “Broken Embraces,” closes the New York Film Festival after coasting in on a wave of mediocre advance word. The most common complaint has been that Almodóvar is blatantly recycling himself, throwing around the same motifs as always (mothers and sons, melodrama, abuse) to lesser effect. But whatever, with Almodóvar and star Penélope Cruz in attendance, this was the conference with the most star power of the fest; multiple TV crews were on stand-by.
Speaking depending on his excitement level, alternately in Spanish and English, Almodóvar discussed the origins of his tale of a now-blind writer/director (Lluís Homar) and his torrid affair with Lena (Cruz), a muse struggling to get out of a relationship with an abusive business tycoon. It began with Almodóvar telling himself stories to amuse himself during frequent migraines; sitting in the dark, he came up with the blind director first. “At the beginning, this blind director was very sexually active,” Almodóvar explained. “The first sequence I thought about was that this man, physically, is very good, and he does the same things that he did when he could see. He’d get up, he’d go to the kiosk, buy the newspaper; he doesn’t read it, but it’s a habit that he doesn’t want to lose. And he goes to the same place to have some coffee, and perhaps he talks with people. And usually, on the way to his place, he tries to flirt with girls whose perfume he enjoys. It was actually kind of a pornographic film about a blind man and lots of girls.”
Another possibility that got discarded: “In front of his place, there is an academy of models, and then they are like the urban legend, that in the neighborhood there is a blind man who is the greatest fucker in the world. And some of them sometimes, when they go to the street, they fantasize about meeting this blind man. And, of course, many of them found him.”
The film-within-a-film the director on his muse are working on is “Girls and Suitcases,” a blatant rip-off of 1988’s “Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” The reason isn’t a complicated meta-riff, but cheap pragmatism: “I wanted for them to make a comedy, just because the drama and the suffering that is in their lives will be more clear if in the background I put a comedy. I decided for ‘Women on the Verge’ because it was cheaper for me, and also easier because I could just adapt it without asking permission for anything.”
Another criticism coming up of this film is that Almodóvar’s been living the high life for so long there’s none of the messy, Bohemian vitality of his early work. Cruz inadvertently gave the haters some evidence when discussing her character’s loveless partnership with a wealthy man and how she came to be an actor both in her life and in art: “She would have been watching two or three movies every night, exploring that art. And then she’s forced to use that in her life, because she has no choice. She does it better than most people would, because that passion for acting and wanting to understand human behavior is there. Maybe if she could have chosen, she would have chosen to express all of that in her work and not having to lie or manipulate in her life.” Some of us might argue that having gold necklaces isn’t exactly a choice one is forced into: the little people sometimes have to live on their secretarial salaries. But hey, I’m not one to quibble: whatever Almodóvar’s indulgences, this is the first film of his I’ve enjoyed since 2002’s “Talk To Her.”
[Photo: Almodóvar and Cruz at the press conference. Photo courtesy of Jason Shawhan.]