It’s been said before, but I’m still gonna say it again: Openly gay Spanish movie director Pedro Almodovar has never really been fully appreciated in the United States. “Broken Embraces” (“Los Abrazos Rotos”), Almodovar’s 17th film, is searing psychodrama– with touches of comedy and neo-noir as well. The first player we meet is Harry (Lluis Homar), a middle-aged filmmaker who was blinded in a car accident ten years prior. Via flashback, we meet the woman who changed his life: Lena (Penelope Cruz, Almodovar’s current muse), a stunning call girl/secretary-turned-actress. Lena is “kept” by a creepy rich man, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). While working as an actress in his film, Lena starts a passionate affair with Harry– which sends the paranoid, obsessed Ernesto into a crazed fit. The two forbidden lovers run away together, but Lena’s scorned old man tries to lure them back by releasing a substandard version of their unfinished movie to theaters. The entire time, Ernesto’s socially awkward gay son (who has his own script-worthy story to tell) is working as a spy for his father, videotaping all the goings-on in the guise of “making a documentary”. Think that’s complicated? You haven’t even scratched the surface yet! You’ll bust while waiting for some clues as to what’s gonna happen next, with all the film’s assorted twists and turns.
This is the fourth Almodovar film that Penelope Cruz has appeared in, and the second which she has the lead role. Playing the object of obsession of one man and the object of true love of another, Cruz goes further than ever before in her acting career– in terms of both her acting ability and her boldness on the screen. (The scene in which she believes that Ernesto has died after sex is priceless.) The camera certainly loves Ms. Cruz, especially in her assorted eye-popping outfits and hairstyles. Almodovar fans will really go for “Broken Embraces”, especially when they discover that the film-within-a-film starring Cruz-as-Lena looks a lot like… “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”! That’s the 1988 movie that first got worldwide attention for Almodovar. When you can successfully pay homage to your own past work in your new movie, you know you’ve come a long way. Viva Pedro!
Almodovar has really grown as a filmmaker through the years. Not that I wasn’t totally nuts about his early movies, which featured truly crazy characters (most of them unapologetically queer) in truly outrageous situations– all with Almodovar’s fluorescent-colored gay sensibility running through. The director’s unrestrained use of gay characters and themes in cinema preceded Hollywood’s explosion of interest in queer culture by well over a decade. Starting with “The Flower of My Secret” in 1995, Almodovar started to move outside the box of daffy comedy to create sexually charged dramas, trading an ensemble cast of cartoonish types for multi-dimensional, full-blooded (but still colorful) characters.
VINTAGE VICE: Law of Desire (La Lay del Deseo)
What’s my favorite movie of all time? “Mommie Dearest”. What’s my second? “Sextette”, starring Mae West. “Law of Desire” (“La Lay Del Deseo”), a very different kind of movie, comes in third. The 1987 film– directed by Spain’s Pedro Almodovar– stars Eusebio Poncela as a self-focused, pushing-middle-age director of “avant garde” films, Carmen Maura as his passionate but loopy transsexual sister, and a very young Antonio Banderas as a handsome but seriously psychotic kid who gets hot in the white briefs for Poncela– with dangerous results. The zany movie is about a gay one-night-stand which literally turns fatal. Like many of Almodovar’s movies, “Law of Desire” is populated with colorfully eccentric characters, and situations and plot twists which border dangerously on the illogical. While “Mommie Dearest” was a drama which was unintentionally funny, and “Sextette” was a comedy which was funny for all the WRONG reasons, “Law of Desire” was likely meant to be both funny and dramatic– AND it succeeds as both (with a touch of thriller as well…). Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, most American directors cannot blend comedy and drama successfully. When you have to go all the way back to “All About Eve” as an example, you know you’re in trouble. Then again, mainstream American directors still can’t seem to get sex on screen right either, especially man-to-man sex. When I first rented this movie on creaky VHS from Tower Records’ foreign video section at age 22, I had never up until that point seen a hotter gay sex scene, the one between Banderas and Poncela. It made me realize that it takes more than just two naked bodies to be sexy on screen. Banderas, a regular in many of Almodovar’s movies, was “discovered” by America not long afterward. Carmen Maura was also a regular in Almodovar’s films, and she recently made her return to his movies in “Volver” with Penelope Cruz in 2006. When this movie came to the big screen in 2006, re-mastered as part of a Almodovar film fest, I saw it twice: once with a boyfriend named Charlie and once with my brother Jay and sister-in-law Margarita. Charlie was oddly quiet for a long time after the movie, making me wonder if it was either from shock or maybe bewilderment at why I would take him to Lincoln Center Cinemas to see a 19-year old movie with subtitles. Margarita loved it, while Jay spent the rest of the night wondering out loud how Antonio Banderas must feel today about having played that very raw role back then. This movie made Almodovar my favorite foreign director. I have seen everything he’s done since then, and have seen his work go from absurdly engaging comedy (“Labyrinth of Passion”), to really smart comedy (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”), to the superior, boundary-breaking drams with comedic touches that he makes today (“All About My Mother”, “Bad Education”, “Talk to Her”). American directors would only ruin his films if they dared try to remake them, largely because most of them don’t know how to be bold yet smart at the same time… and STILL can’t get sex right. In the meantime, Pedro Almodovar remains a cult figure in the U.S. (God forbid anyone in Middle America have to read subtitles during their movie…) I vowed to never miss any of his upcoming movies. I have also vowed that whoever doesn’t like “Law of Desire” can’t be my friend.