The pop art films of Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar have certain trademark qualities (a vibrant, glossy look, melodrama blended with irreverent comedy and high camp, queer-friendly hedonism) that have made him an international critics’ darling for over two decades. His filmography is peppered with modern arthouse classics like “Law of Desire,” “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “All About My Mother,” “Talk to Her” and “Bad Education,” but, even having turned 60 this year, Almodóvar has no intention of slowing down.
A follow-up to 2006’s “Volver,” his fourth collaboration with Penélope Cruz is “Broken Embraces,” a romantic, neo-noirish drama that flashes forward and back between the ’90s and today. Lluís Homar stars as a middle-aged screenwriter who gave up his career as a filmmaker once a car accident rendered him blind. Through an outrageous series of recalled memories and time-fractured reveals, the shaggy tale of his affair with Cruz’s aspiring actress and the wealthy producer who came between them is meticulously pieced together, sometimes during films-within-this-film. In true Almodóvar fashion, the final result is an audacious genre-hopper that worships Cruz’s beauty, not to mention desire itself and the art of making cinema. With some help from a translator, Almodóvar chatted with me about personal touches, images too sacred to be filmed, and how his life has changed since becoming a sexagenarian.
“Broken Embraces” chronicles a love destroyed by jealousy, fate, deceit and the power of creative control. Do even your thorniest screenplays ever start with a single character, theme or image?
Initially, I had the [beach] photograph that appears in the film that I took nine years ago. When I developed it, I realized there was that couple of lovers embracing at the foot of the picture. I got the impression that there was a secret not only behind that, but in the island of Lanzarote itself. Of course, the story had many different sources. You need more than one idea to develop a script. But in my case, they never came all at once. I take these stories with me and write them down over many years, and once I’ve gathered a certain volume of notes, that’s when I start writing the script. My method of writing is actually more similar to a novelist than a professional scriptwriter. The reason I make a film every two years is that I always have a number of ideas in the works, and they develop gradually.
The film is also largely about filmmaking, yet you’ve said that the unfinished comedy within this film, “Girls and Suitcases,” is not meant to stand in for your “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” It’s still fairly reminiscent, so I’m curious to know how personal this film is to you.
I absolutely want to say all about myself. One of the most important elements, despite the fact that it goes on in the characters’ backgrounds, is that they all work in cinema. Lena actually gives her life up in order to ensure that a film is finished, and I am as romantic as that. I think I would give my life up to finish a film. For instance, the main character, the film director, has many of my own pictures. The style of all the clothes he wears in the ’90s, those are all my own clothes, and some of his furniture is mine, too. Once he’s blind, he wants to watch some DVDs, and he says he wants to listen to Jeanne Moreau’s voice. All the directors he mentions, and Moreau herself, are some of my favorites. What’s most important about this director is his attitude, his philosophy towards his work, when he says that you have to finish a movie, even if it’s in the dark.
“Women on the Verge” is present — obviously it’s a very free adaptation — but the reason for that is that I wanted to strike an opposition between the circumstances the characters are living in and the backdrop of comedy, to heighten how dramatic their situation is. If Penélope’s character arrived on set absolutely devastated by her own situation and was playing a drama, it would be a lot easier for her to do that than if she had to start playing a light comedy. That was trickier for her to do. [When we] see a few fragments of that film, I chose to use my own material since it was the most practical option, the cheapest, and I could feel very free with it. But it wasn’t until after we shot “Girls and Suitcases” that I realized that I’ve not only reviewed my own work, but it was a sort of déjà vu, because I thought that [we’d] been invaded by all these ghosts from the ship years ago. It was a very peculiar experience.
Not to be a jinx, but if you lost your eyesight, how would you continue trying to work in cinema?
When I mentioned the things that I identify with in this character, there are some that I don’t entirely identify with. I would never abandon a film for love. Or, probably, I would try to resolve the issues with the person I loved, but I would never walk away from a film on the editing table. I wouldn’t want to tempt fate, but you never really know how you’re going to react in this extremely tragic situation. But at least, in theory, I would definitely finish the movie. I would try to find out what happened and why the movie was so bad when it opened originally, but aside from those circumstantial considerations, I would probably keep on directing. I would direct theater.