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Broken Embraces (2009) is the fourth collaboration between Spanish director Pedro Almodovar and his ‘muse’, actress Penelope Cruz. As his earlier films with Carmen Maura and others attest, Almodovar is skilled at bringing out the best in his actors, particularly women. In the early 2000s, Hollywood snapped up Penelope Cruz and, partly due to her romance with Tom Cruise, she became internationally famous. But her most interesting work has been in her native Spain, with Almodovar.

In Broken Embraces, Cruz plays Lena, secretary and mistress of millionaire financier Ernesto Martel Sr (José Luis Goméz.) In the early 1990s, she also becomes involved with director Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar) while acting in one of his films. This sparks Martel’s jealousy and leads to tragedy. The action switches between this past love triangle and the present day, when a blinded, solitary Mateo, now calling himself ‘Harry Caine’, retells the story of his lost love and tries to rebuild his life with the support of his agent, Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her son, Diego (Tamar Novas.)

Almodovar chose a ‘noir’ style for his film, and there are several references to the genre – a femme fatale (Lena), her possessive lover (Ernesto Sr), and the tragic hero, Mateo/Harry Caine. The mood is generally sombre, peppered with wry humour, and visually it is a stunning work, though with its bright colouring, an Almodovar trademark, it is more typical of the later Hollywood noirs and melodramas of the 1950s than the original B-movies.

The ‘film within a film’, Girls and Suitcases, is by contrast, a broad farce. Its storyline is reminiscent of Almodovar’s 1988 release, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and features another of his regular stars, Carmen Machi. The DVD features a hilarious monologue by Machi as Chon, a coke-addled politician, addressed to a comatose woman at a kitchen table.

Mateo’s relationship with agent Judit entails a further romantic complication – Judit was once in love with Mateo, and deeply jealous of Lena. She plotted with Ernesto to ruin the movie, with disastrous consequences, and is later wracked by guilt.

Her son, Diego, is a handsome, gay DJ who nearly dies after his drink is spiked. Mateo entrusts Diego with the story of his affair with Lena and together they piece together the mystery of her fate. As in several of Almodovar’s films, the child-parent bond runs parallel with the sexual relationship, whether gay or straight.

Furthermore,Ernesto’s son, Ernesto Jr alias Ray X (Rubén Ochandiando) becomes infatuated with Mateo, shooting a documentary of his own while ostensibly spying for his father on Mateo’s liaison with Lena, his stepmother. Meanwhile, Ernesto Sr engages a woman to transcribe conversations between Lena and Mateo on the set. Voyeurism is an ongoing theme, complimenting the Noir aesthetic of Broken Embraces.

Other than Lena, Ernesto Sr was the most intriguing character to me. As played by José Luis Goméz, Ernesto appears gentle, thoughtful and devoted to Lena. However, as the story progresses, his character becomes more sinister – his obsessive pursuit of Lena culminating in a shocking act of violence – he pushes her down a flight of stairs. It is to the actor, and writer-director’s credit that the ‘villain’ of the piece is portrayed in subtler shades than mainstream dramas allow.

Another point of interest, for me, was the references to film icons of the past, including Audrey Hepburn and especially Marilyn Monroe. In the first scene, Mateo/Harry tells Judit of an article he has read in Vanity Fair about Arthur Miller, to which she replies, ‘The writer who married Marilyn?’ It is revealing that Miller is recognised firstly for his association with Marilyn, whose arguably greater celebrity ensures that no second name is necessary.

The article in question, ‘Arthur Miller’s Missing Act’, was published in 2007. Unconnected to Monroe, it told the story of Miller’s son Daniel by his third wife, Inge Morath. Born with Downs’ Syndrome, Daniel was committed to an institution shortly after birth and ignored by Miller, though Morath remained in contact with Daniel until her death. The article was widely controversial and raises questions of how far a public figure like Miller should be judged by his private shortcomings.

In the opening scene of Broken Embraces, Mateo has an idea for a script based on a supposed encounter between Miller and Daniel in later life, perhaps echoing his own bond with Judit’s son, Diego. The scandal surrounding Miller also reflects Mateo’s troubled past which he has tried to escape by changing his identity. ‘It isn’t about the writer’s shabbiness,’ Mateo explains. ‘It’s about the strength of the son who survives without any grudge against the father who ignored him.’ This idea is left undeveloped, but connected themes of forgiveness and survival resonate as Mateo’s secrets unravel.

One of the most memorable scenes depicts Lena during her screen test. Encouraged by a gay stylist, Mateo suggests she impersonate Audrey Hepburn. The resemblance between Lena/Cruz and Hepburn is striking – they are both possessed of a delicate beauty, and Cruz captures Audrey’s ‘gamine’ quality very well. The parallels between the two actresses reflect the mirrored narratives and dual identities of Broken Embraces – Cruz, like Hepburn, is a European actress who conquered Hollywood, and like Hepburn, Cruz has generally been cast as the elegant ‘ingenue’ in her American films. Hepburn played against type, with some success, in the iconic Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), while Cruz has tackled more challenging, sensual roles in her work with Almodovar.

‘(Penelope) had this passion that she breathes out of every pore, that element of cheekiness, which is really suited to my films,’ Almodovar told The Guardian last year. ‘She was not so lucky in the beginning. She got to Hollywood very quickly and everybody wanted to work with her. Because she is very beautiful, it became more to do with that. She became a fashion icon and they didn’t care if she is a good actress or not. That’s what I don’t like about Hollywood. They never conceive of giving an actor something unusual. They have to be safe in everything that they do.’

After filming Lena as Audrey, Mateo says, ‘Now I’d like to try something more daring. A platinum blonde wig. Very pop.’ The wig is very artificial, and given Cruz’s dark, Mediterranean beauty, it should look ridiculous. Instantly the mood of the shoot changes, turning more serious and undeniably sexier. An obviously disapproving Judit is asked to move off-camera. Lena, in her blonde wig and black halter-neck gown, seems to fleetingly capture the spirit of Marilyn Monroe.

“She was this ball of magic, and a very talented actress,’ Cruz said of Monroe in an interview with the Miami Herald last year. ‘But the magic sometimes overshadowed how talented she was.’ Interestingly, Marilyn is not named in the scene – there is no need. Her hair and clothing are almost identical to Monroe’s, not in her heyday as a sex symbol, but during the final years of her life. The aura of tragic glamour that Marilyn embodied now passes to Lena.

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