Can there be such a thing as exuberant melancholy? I can’t think of another way to describe the spirit of “Broken Embraces,” Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, the title of which carries a telling hint of paradox. It is grave and effervescent, tender and cruel.
The story might seem simple at first — a film noir potboiler of jealousy and revenge — but as it unfolds, the narrative reveals an intricate and enigmatic structure, full of twists and reversals. The visual and aural textures are lush and sensual, as we’ve come to expect from Mr. Almodóvar, and yet the rich colors and deep sonorities somehow illuminate an unusually austere emotional terrain.
Like “All About My Mother,” “Talk to Her,” “Bad Education” and “Volver” — not a bad decade’s work, by the way — “Broken Embraces” leaves the viewer in a contradictory state, a mixture of devastation and euphoria, amusement and dismay that deserves its own clinical designation. Call it Almodóvaria, a syndrome from which some of us are more than happy to suffer.
Mr. Almodóvar’s characters tend to be stricken with their own versions of the malady — subject to strong and confused longings, surprised by pain in their pursuits of pleasure. When we first meet him, Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), the central male figure in “Broken Embraces,” seems to have found a cure. A writer and former film director, Harry is blind as the result of a long-ago car accident and skilled at using his disability as a tool of seduction. He is looked after by Judit (Blanca Portillo), who used to be his production assistant, and by her son, Diego (Tamar Novas), and generally appears content to live in a sunny present tense of casual sex, steady work and easy friendship.
Mr. Almodóvar has a gift for happy beginnings. But the law of narrative (and the law of desire, to cite one of his early titles) mandates trouble, and Harry’s curious English pseudonym, evoking both “The Third Man” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” is a premonition of lurking shadows. Harry’s current life, it turns out, is an edifice of willed forgetting and strenuous denial. His past is a secret he is trying to keep, above all from himself. But circumstances conspire to pry open the vault, and Harry is compelled to tell the tragic story of the man he used to be.
Reviewers are frequently cautioned against ruining the end of a movie. In the case of Mr. Almodóvar, whose plots thicken and explode according to their own peculiar logic, we risk spoiling the middle, so I’ll try to be circumspect when it comes to further summary.
At the same time, though, the tale framed by Harry’s reminiscence is so strange and beautiful, so perfectly realized, that no exposition could damage it. The word flashback hardly does justice to the episode from Harry’s old life — when he was a dashing, sighted cinéaste named Mateo Blanco — that lifts “Broken Embraces” into the company of Mr. Almodóvar’s other recent masterworks.
Back then, 14 years before the bright, blinded present, Mateo, whose surname connotes both innocence and blankness, embarked on an ambitious film project — a comedy called “Girls and Suitcases” — and also on a headlong, perilous affair with an actress. Her name was Lena, and she was the mistress of an industrialist named Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), who was the film’s main financial backer. Let the past tense in that sentence stand as an indication of how it all ended. The fact that Lena is played by Penélope Cruz may tell you everything else you need to know.
Or maybe not. Ms. Cruz has become Mr. Almodóvar’s link to the glorious movie-star traditions of the past. In “Volver” he made her an incarnation of melodramatic maternity, evoking the wounded resilience of Anna Magnani and Joan Crawford without sacrificing her natural comic verve. Here she adopts a more haunted and haunting persona, that of a woman trapped by circumstances and by her own choices in a wrenching professional and romantic dilemma.
But since Mr. Almodóvar’s sympathy gravitates naturally toward women, Lena is much more than a static image of female suffering or an object of male hunger. Shadows of past screen goddesses may still flicker across her face and form — Audrey Hepburn, Gloria Grahame, Simone Signoret — but she seems at once freer and more vulnerable than they were.
Mr. Almodóvar’s engagement with the great traditions of movie melodrama is never merely nostalgic. In the phase of his career that began in 1995 with “The Flower of My Secret” he has drawn particular inspiration from Hollywood directors of the 1950s, including Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray, all of whom used relatively new techniques of color cinematography to discover fresh and uncanny registers of feeling. The unsettled intensity that was Ray’s particular specialty — the sense, so vivid in his best films, of wild emotions obeying their own dangerous logic — infuses the middle section of “Broken Embraces,” much of which takes place on the windswept volcanic island of Lanzarote.
But the most direct and striking dialogue the movie conducts with a filmmaker from the past is with Pedro Almodóvar himself. Aficionados will recognize “Girls and Suitcases,” bits of which turn up in “Broken Embraces,” most powerfully at the end, as a replica of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” Mr. Almodóvar’s marvelous madcap comedy from 1988. Its appearance is not vanity or clever self-quotation. Rather, the director’s pastiche of his early, funny work becomes, in the context of this somber new film, a poignant reflection on aging and loss. To catch a glimpse of “Women” in the mirror of “Embraces” is to see how cinematic images can be both tangible and ghostly.
And also — literally in the case of Harry Caine and “Girls and Suitcases” — invisible to their maker, who is no longer the man he was. He has lost so much over the years. Every one of us has, and if Mr. Almodóvar has grown wise enough to understand that art is a dreadfully inadequate compensation, he is still generous enough to offer it to us anyway.
“Broken Embraces” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has sex, nudity and adult sorrow.
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar; director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto; edited by José Salcedo; music by Alberto Iglesias; art director, Antxon Gómez; produced by Agustín Almodóvar and Esther García; released by Sony Pictures Classics. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes.
WITH: Penélope Cruz (Lena), Lluís Homar (Mateo/Harry Caine), Blanca Portillo (Judit), José Luis Gómez (Ernesto Martel), Rubén Ochandiano (Ray X) and Tamar Novas (Diego).