Early descriptions of 'Broken Embraces' had it pegged as something of an anthology film, with four interlocking, noir-ish stories culminating in unexpected results (this is a Pedro Almodóvar film, after all). This is not, of course, what the movie ended up being, but it's a good jumping off point when considering a film which is, in the very least, one of the director's most structurally ambitious works to date.
To explain: the movie begins with a blind director Harry Caine (Lluís Homar) seducing a movie he's just met on the street. It's the kind of funny, sexy, oddball scene that is so evocative of Almodóvar's funny, sexy, oddball body of work. Harry lives with his agent, Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her grown son Diego (Tamar Novas). When Harry reads that a millionaire Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) has died (and when I say "reads" I mean he has his computer read the news report to him - it's a weird and affecting scene), memories start getting triggered in Harry's brain. He starts to remember things, and tells the story of his brief, passionate, and tragic affair with a beautiful young woman named Lena (Penélope Cruz).
Okay, so far we've identified two of the four potential stories - Harry, present day, recounting his love affair (story #1), and the love affair itself (story #2).
There's sort of a problem with perspective in this movie, which we'll quickly whitewash over in an effort to save time and not engage in such theoretically curlicue pursuits, but from there we get a lot of the Lena story. How she has sick, elderly parents. How she is a part-time call girl (a completely bizarre subplot that's barely given any time to register). And how she falls under the spell of Ernesto, first as a sex object and then as a deeply coveted mistress. Ernesto thinks Lena should be an actress, and arranges for her to be in a movie directed by Harry (then going by his real name Mateo Blanco). Of course, Ernesto is also possessive and jealous and hires out his gay son to spy on them.
Can we pause for a second? Do you see how things are spiraling in on themselves? We have the movie, we have the movie within the movie that Mateo is shooting, which bares an uncanny resemblance to Almodóvar's 'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,' including shared actresses (this would be story #3 in my 'Broken Embraces' as an actual anthology film theories). We have characters sharing multiple identities, not only Mateo/Harry Cain but also Lena/her prostitute self/and who she plays in the movie.
In one of 'Broken Embrace's' greatest sequences, Ernesto hires a lip reader to describe what's happening in some of his son's on-set footage. It's hilarious and heartbreaking and very strange, again: all hallmarks of Almodóvar's best work.
To describe any more of the film's actual plot would be criminal, as it unfolds with the usual amount of heartbreak, familial revelation, and general strangeness that accompany the conclusion to his films (somewhere between Douglas Sirk and Brian De Palma). 'Broken Embraces' is a beautiful, powerful work. Is it one of Almodóvar's best? I'm not sure yet. It's certainly a huge film to try and unpack after only a couple of viewings, and for me it lacks the zestful joy that permeated his last film (and made it so electric), the criminally overlooked 'Volver.' 'Broken Embraces' is closer, tonally, to 'Bad Education,' in its quasi-thriller feeling, but it may be Almodóvar's most autobiographical film yet; one in which the rabbit hole of filmmaking is deep and bottomless, and capable of life-altering changes for good and bad.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 50GB Blu-ray disc is Region "A" locked and BD-Live equipped, although at the time of this review, nothing BD-Live was going on. The disc automatically starts and quickly sets up mankind's development as divided into two halves - one pre-Blu-ray and one post-Blu-ray (the one post is obviously much better), followed by a mishmash of trailers for other Sony films. Other than that, I really like the inside sleeve pattern that you see when you open the box.
The disc's MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer (aspect ratio: 2.35:1, slightly off from its 2.39:1 original theatrical presentation) is quite strong but perhaps not as dazzling as I'd hoped for.
The movie is full of eye-popping colors, which is very true to form for Almodóvar, but here, shockingly, they don't look all that eye-popping. Instead, the general impression left from this image is one that is flat. And while definition is strong (detail is there, for sure) and black levels are nice and deep, there is something unmistakably lacking in the presentation. Which is a real shame.
Elsewhere on the disc, the presentation seems very faithful, in the way that the edges of the frame are intentionally blurry (kind of like the similar effect in 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,' except this is tied directly into the characters' emotional struggles), but again, it lacks the spark that you'd expect in the movie. (And, indeed, what I remember from seeing it theatrically at last year's New York Film Festival.)
In terms of the technical nitty gritty, there's certainly nothing wrong here. There are no buggy technical issues (artifacts, macro-blocking, or any of that nonsense), nor is there unsightly grain or scratches, pops etc., but there is something, a kind of essential visual vitality that is sadly missing. It's by no means a bad transfer, it's just one that could have used some more finesse.
The disc's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix (in Spanish, of course) is somewhat better but, again, it doesn't exactly rock your socks off with raw sonic power.
Still, it's really not that kind of movie. It's a dialogue intensive film, so things are kept up front and center, for the most part. Occasionally atmospheric flourishes arise, and are rendered beautifully, but the full sound spectrum is hardly taken advantage of.
That said, what we get here is generally pretty great. All the dialogue is crisp and clear, no matter how fast they're talking (Almodóvar tends to write dialogue like he's firing a machine gun), and the movie's beautiful score by Alberto Iglesias Fernández-Berridi (yeah, I used his full name, that's right) really comes through with some punch.
Also, technically, there's nothing wrong with the track, as it is wonderfully free of hiss, cracks, pops, or any other annoying sound defects. This track is along the lines of the video transfer - it's workmanlike, efficient, but could have been a whole lot more.
Additionally, a French Dolby Digital 5.1 track is included, as well as subtitles in English, English SDH, and French.
There is a modest collection of extras that, on the outset, might make you excited, but they really don't add up to a lot (and many of them aren't in HD). There isn't a commentary track or an extensive documentary. As far as I can tell, the only HD-exclusive feature is the fact that the disc is BD-Live equipped but, again, that hasn't been activated yet (if ever).
'Broken Embraces' is a really, really great little movie. Part film noir, part anthology film, part Douglas Sirk-like melodrama; it's Pedro Almodóvar and his muse Penélope Cruz firing on all cylinders. While I'm not sure it rests in the top percentile of his work, it's a daring, emotionally engaging film that's well worth your time. If only the Blu-ray disc were up to snuff. With adequate video and audio and less-than-adequate special features (many of them in standard definition), it brings down the film. It's still recommended, though.