Tainted love story

Low stakes and a toothless villain doom this romance

Broken Embraces
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Rated: R
Cast: Penelope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Blanca Portillo, Jose Luis Gomez, Ruben Ochandiano
Director: Pedro Almodovar
WorkNameSort: Broken Embraces
Our Rating: 3.00

It takes a filmmaker of remarkable, even admirable, self-absorption to make a movie about star-crossed lovers ' one of fiction's longest-running devices, usually requiring a woman possessed by a powerful, sinister leader to fall for someone who falls under the bad man's power ' and replace the standard evil maharaja or spiteful king with an obsessive producer of bad comedies.

That producer's wife, Lena (Penélope Cruz) is cast in her first film, directed by Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar), and she and the self-professed auteur fall into bed together immediately. The producer, the wealthy Ernesto Martel, has Lena followed by his gay son with a video camera and watches the dailies of the unfolding love affair in horror.

Never mind what he plans to do to with the lovers ' what will he do with the film? The director and his starlet decide that finishing the movie is what really matters, so they limp and crawl to the editing bay, no matter the cost. This is where you might be thinking, 'It's just a movie, walk away!â?� If they were making Citizen Kane, then their actions might be understandable. But the glimpses we get of the scenes being shot are painfully tone-deaf, leaving us without any rational stake in the actual film we're watching, the usually expert Pedro Almodóvar's Broken Embraces.

Regarding Embraces, and not the film inside it for a moment, Almodóvar sets up a tightly coiled little suspense. There are moments of Hitchcockian uneasiness, accentuated by Cruz's typically stellar performance and her disturbingly close resemblance to Audrey Hepburn (which lends a feeling that this delicate flower could be crushed in an instant). And Almodóvar's narrative framing ' the love story is told in flashback to the son of a sideline player in the mayhem by the director, who is now blind and being stalked again by the gay son ' swirls with possibilities and dramatic steam-building.

But all that steam gets sucked from the screen tragically, self-destructively, in a third act that explains everything over a verbose barroom conversation with a resolution that seeks to absolve everyone by giving them the most trivial of motivations. Without giving anything away, let's just say that a dastardly film editor and an uncomfortably bad reception at a movie premiere hardly stand next to the consequences in other star-crossed love stories like Wuthering Heights or Tristan and Isolde. That a ham-handed final cut of a film that's clearly bad to begin with could be the driving force behind decades of bitterness and turmoil doesn't inspire sympathy so much as eye-rolling groans.

In spite of that train-wreck ending, however, Almodóvar is unable to make a wholly bad film. The quiet emotions he brings out of all involved and the opening 30 minutes or so, in which the blind filmmaker bats around screenplay ideas with flashes of genius and crashes of dead ends, are positively thrilling, as is the turning of the suspenseful screws. That makes it all the more difficult to watch it unfold, only to evaporate into nothing.

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