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Broken Embraces (15)

The once searingly original Spanish auteur stoops to

Broken Embraces is like a tenderly embalmed corpse - glossy, presentable and entirely lacking in vital signs. Any successes are almost exclusively in the area of design; the film is dead from the decor down.

This is the latest work by a once-subversive and vital director who has now acquired the deadening mantle of international treasure. You may know him as Pedro Almodóvar, a film-maker who in the 1980s and 1990s squeezed more delirious drama from the writhing, wormy infrastructure of lust than anyone since his compatriot Luis Buñuel; works of his such as The Law of Desire, Kika and Live Flesh should be required viewing for anyone even considering having a sex life. These days, however, he deserves better to go by the name of Pedro Autopilot.

In many ways, Broken Embraces feels like a curtain call or a summing-up, which would seem indulgent even if the same director's last film, Volver, had not coasted by on the same impression. As in The Law of Desire and Bad Education, its hero is a repressed film-maker. Since losing his sight in an accident, Mateo Blanco has eschewed directing in favour of writing scripts under the pseudonym Harry Caine. (Could that be a reference to his long-winded voice-over?) But it takes only a gentle prod from his assistant for Mateo to explore his buried feelings. A key image here is a stash of torn photographs hidden in a drawer, which sums up the bargain-basement Freudianism in which the film trades.

As played by Lluís Homar, a man who could knock Kelsey Grammer into second place in a Kelsey Grammer lookalike contest, Mateo is a glorified narrator who leads us back and forth between flashbacks to his relationship with a former leading lady, Lena (Penélope Cruz). She was being wooed by the ageing industrialist Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), but then that mismatched affair hit the rocks when she fell for Mateo on set. The old man in turn commissioned his son to shoot a behind-the-scenes documentary, combing the silent Super-8 reels for evidence of Lena's affair with Mateo.

It is encouraging that even in the middle of the plot's creaking revolutions, Almodóvar can still summon up the occasional burst
of inspiration - such as Lena walking in on a screening of the incriminating footage and dubbing her own voice over the soundless image of her unfaithful lips.

Yet even here the potency of the scene is almost smothered by the director's smug knowingness. Almodóvar has got every interpretation not only covered, but woven into the fabric of the film. Another director might be content to smuggle into a film about the ambiguous power of cinema
a visual nod to Peeping Tom, but Almodóvar goes one further by having a character mention the Michael Powell chiller, in case we have missed the allusion.

This is precisely the reason why some people don't listen to the commentary track on DVDs: it's like having the chef eat your meal for you, then describe how it tastes. Watching Broken Embraces suggests what it must feel like to have a director's commentary that you can't switch off. Every nuance, echo and in-joke is unravelled for you. (I'm surprised the film doesn't come with a list of recommended viewing: Belle de jour, Vertigo, Le mépris, Almodóvar's own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and more.) There is nothing for the viewer to do except suffocate in the airless beauty of it all. It's asphyxiation by auteurism.

Thank goodness for Antxón Gómez, whose credit should be not Art Director, but rather Knight in Shining Armour, for it is he who sweeps in and saves the day with canvases (multiple cocked guns, a pair of apples plucked straight from Eden) that inject a kitsch thrill into the film's middlebrow cosiness. This certainly provides a welcome distraction from the laboured script, which plots the same, well-trodden path to redemption and closure as the lamest Ronald Bass weepie, and ends in a froth of soapy revelations. You know the sort of thing - "Remember that night of passion we shared 20 years ago? Well, there's something I never told you . . ."

Perhaps Broken Embraces is not a complete failure. Many of the images, including one of a perfectly formed teardrop resting on a ripe tomato, would look delicious on any living-room wall. The film may represent another low point for its director, but we can expect to see its influence on interior design for years to come.


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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years