Film noir is a genre that has become synonymous with the 1940’s and 1950’s. When they were first released, the thrillers, mysteries, and melodramas that compose the versatile genre were often pushed aside as ‘popcorn fare’ that were only produced to satisfy studio budgets. As time wore on, however, the gritty style and moral complexity of those forgotten films was finally recognized by new generations who saw the anxieties and broken hopes of their own era reflected back at them on the black and white screens of the past. Today, the genre has been hailed as both cutting edge and classic and is regularly, though rarely successfully, imitated. One film that successfully manages to blend the moral crises and dark sensibilities of noir with the issues and norms of contemporary society is the 2009 Spanish neo-noir Broken Embraces.
|So familiar, but I can't think why....|
The story begins with blind screenwriter Harry Caine (Lluis Homar) learning about the death of the producer of one of his films, tycoon Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). Soon after this revelation, Harry’s agent approaches him with a new client, an amateur director known only as ‘Ray X’ (Ruben Ochandiano). Harry later realizes that Ray X is actually the alias of Ernesto Martel’s son, Ernesto Jr. The film then launches into a flashback to the early 1990’s when Harry still possessed his sight and was a director named Mateo Blanco who wrote screenplays under the pseudonym Harry Caine. Mateo is approached by Ernesto, who agrees to finance Mateo’s latest project, a comedy called “Girls and Suitcases”, in hopes of securing a role for his secretary turned mistress, Lena (Penelope Cruz). Mateo reluctantly allows Lena to audition only to find himself almost instantly captivated by her, and despite her lack of professional experience, he immediately casts her, leading the two to quickly embark upon an affair. Suspecting that something is amiss, Ernesto enlists the aid of his film loving son to spy on the pair under the guise of filming a documentary about the making of “Girls and Suitcases”. Ernesto Jr. soon finds the evidence that his father is seeking, leaving Lena to face the wrath of the increasingly abusive Ernesto Sr. The film then chronicles the tragedy that results when the lives of Mateo and his cast and crew intersect with those of the Martels.
Director Pedro Almodovar expertly pays tribute to film noir without resorting to blatant imitation. The film’s tone appropriately alternates between suspenseful and mournful, while still maintaining moments of wry humor. Rather than the stereotypical lights and shadows associated with the genre, Almodovar instead infuses the film with explosions of vibrant color. In this way, the film follows in the footsteps of such classics as 1945’s Leave Her To Heaven in its portrayal of the evil that lurks within broad daylight. The characters follow noir archetypes while still remaining entirely modern and believable. For instance, Lena enters the film with a femme fatale’s allure, but is later revealed to be using that same sensual charm to mask her tortured past and prison-like present. Similarly, Mateo, while an unabashed ladies’ man is decent at heart, and like many a noir hero, finds himself lost in the world of love, lust, and obsession that Lena’s presence transforms his life into. Finally, the ruthless Ernesto’s inhuman cruelty and all too human motivations earn him a place alongside the most infamous villains in the genre. The film also pays tribute to classic films outside of noir with Lena donning costumes that are direct references to such icons as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe and Mateo viewing films that feature such classic stars as Ingrid Bergman and Jeanne Moreau. The story also includes a sly nod to Almodovar’s own early work with “Girls and Suitcases” serving as a clever stand-in for his hit comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, making the film a treat for cinephiles both classic and modern.
|Rainy days and Mondays always get them down|
The cast provide uniformly excellent performances that weave an edgy mystery with a retro twist. Lluis Homar makes for an effective leading man, serving as the voice of reason in the film’s twisted tale, while still portraying his character’s unique blend of world weariness and charisma. Jose Luis Gomez is an excellent counter to Homar’s Mateo as he perfectly embodies the desperation that his obsession with Lena reduces the otherwise successful and powerful Ernesto to. Penelope Cruz shines in her role as the enigmatic Lena, proving that she can play far more complex and compelling characters than the pretty faces that she is too often limited to in American films. Blanca Portillo, Tamar Novas, and Ruben Ochandiano lend apt support in their roles as Mateo’s agent, Judit, Judit’s college student son, and Ray X, each excellently portraying characters who are not what they seem.
Broken Embraces is a film that blends the best of classic and modern cinema to tell a truly unique tale. Its winding story relates a powerful mystery that highlights the ways that art and creativity help us to find meaning in life despite its many obstacles. The dynamic performances and razor-sharp script perfectly merge to create an enticing film that could convert even the most staunch of film critics into cinema devotees. Whether you like your films at the forefront of innovation or bask in the nostalgia of screenings past, your heart is bound to break for Broken Embraces.
|Proving that even call girls have professional limits|
If you enjoy noir, check out my full-length noir style play, Call It Even http://www.jacpub.com/Full-Length/Ennis_CallItEven.htm