Penelope Cruz plays several characters in a film about love, secrets and… (Emilio Pereda / Paola Ardizzoni )
Something almost magical happens whenever actress Penélope Cruz and filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar work together, and so it is with "Broken Embraces," a deliciously twisted tale of love, death and a badly edited film.
The writer-director is up to his old tricks, creating an onion of an experience -- a movie within a movie within a movie, irony in each layer, poignancy that stings and whimsy that bites.
Cruz has turned in a performance that is just as complex -- a character within a character and so on, all residing within the mysterious and beautiful Lena.
Central to the setup is an impoverished young beauty trying to escape the world's oldest profession and the powerful man who wants to possess her. Initially, fate comes down on his side. Lena has gotten an office job, but a bad turn of financial affairs makes a trick or two seem the only answer.
Enter Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), her tycoon of a boss who wants to help, though not for the most altruistic of reasons. Power corrupts, and Ernesto is not immune. It says much about Almodóvar's views on studio executives that the film's chief villain will become the producer of two disastrous films, to say nothing of the creative ways the filmmaker gins up to torture him.
But there is another story unfolding that we need to pay attention to. Lluís Homar is a blind writer named Harry Caine who has just been approached by a mysterious young director named Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano), who wants Harry to write a script for him. But Harry is actually a former director named Mateo. And Ray X, well, he is something else again too.
There will be many more "buts," "and thens," as we tumble down the rabbit hole where everyone has many faces and most have many names. Lives will intersect, hearts will be broken and three films will emerge.
Before you even have time to make notes, Almodóvar has thoughts on the biz he wants to share, and he sends us back in time with Ernesto and Lena. By now, he's given her an opulent life and with it, the bored-housewife syndrome.
As anyone with cable knows, there is no better distraction for a bored housewife than an acting career, which is as good a way as any for the director to introduce the idea of another film. You can almost see the smile widen on Almodóvar's face here.
Soon Lena has the starring role in "Girls and Suitcases." This film becomes the perfect vehicle for the director to reference a lot of things about movies that he loves, and he steals liberally from one of his earlier works, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," to do so.
Cruz steals more than a little herself -- primarily just about every scene she is in, with echoes of Audrey Hepburn -- think the bangs and a pony-tailed innocent in "Sabrina" -- Shirley MacLaine and any number of characters who populated American noir. The range of characters given to Cruz and the way she slips in and out of them so seamlessly reminds you of just how versatile an actress she is.
"Broken Embraces," though, also belongs to Homar's excellent Harry / Mateo, who gives voice to the frustrations and inspirations that visit a director during the making of any movie. It is with his story that Almodóvar weighs in on the fragile nature of film, the importance of a creative vision and the notion that even a blind director can cut a better movie than a money man.
There are many more side stories seeded throughout this labyrinth. Though Almodóvar is the mischievous architect of the maze, thankfully, he is also a willing guide.
And the moral of this story? Whatever else you do, never mess with the director's cut.