Ingeniously constructed as parallel metafilms – one, Ray X’s (Rubén Ochandiano) behind the scenes documentary that illustrates the intersection (and disjunction) between reality and fiction; the other, Mateo’s (Lluís Homar) reconstruction of a doomed film project made 14 years earlier that reflects the role of the filmmaker as archaeologist and conjurer – Pedro Almodóvar’s wry, multivalent, and voluptuous Broken Embraces is also a poignant rumination on grief, guilt, and loss. The theme of duality is prefigured in Mateo’s adoption of the name Harry Caine, his screenwriter alterego, after a tragic accident that left him blind, as well as office secretary, Lena’s adoption of the pseudonym Severine (in a playful nod to Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour) when she moonlights as a call girl to help pay for the mounting expenses incurred by her father’s terminal illness.
This assumption of persona is also implied in an early episode of Lena trying out assorted costumes that emulate iconic images of Hollywood actresses as part of her screen test for Mateo’s film project, Girls and Suitcases (a reflexive reworking of Almodóvar’s earlier film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), simultaneously evoking Blake Edwards’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s in Lena’s literal and figurative prostitution to her employer turned lover, Ernesto (José Luis Gómez) that is as motivated by financial necessity as it is by gratitude, as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in Mateo’s attempt to conform Lena to the image of his creative vision and desire. It is interesting to note that the idea of projected desire is also revisited in the episodes of Ernesto spying on Lena through his son’s unsynced documentary footage with the help of a neutral lip reader – an image that not only finds affinity with Chantal Akerman’s recurring theme of “who speaks for the woman”, but also converges into a sublime double projection when Lena enters the room and repeats her on-camera declaration in person, in essence, supplanting the image with the real. It is this transformation that perhaps best captures the haunting closing image of a reinvigorated Mateo against a magnified, recovered footage from the accident – revealing, not only a longing to suspend time and reconfigure the past, but also, in casting his own shadow against the projected image, an invocation.
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