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October 18, 2009

Broken Embraces, 2009

broken_embraces.gifIngeniously 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.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 18, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York Film Festival


First, let me thank you for this great site. It's been in my bookmars for years now, and I check it and enjoy it periodically.

That said, I find appalling -with all due respect- that you should show so much contempt for Kim Ki-duk's work -I've just read your review of The Bow- while you give such a positive and validating review to Broken Embraces. I assume you don't speak Spanish, because if you did -I speak and am Spanish- you couldn't overlook just how terrible the dialogues in this film are: the only actor that manages not to sound like a complete phony is the one playing Mateo, although sometimes not even he manages to wrap his tongue around those horrible sentences.

And not just the dialogues: the actors are terrible most of the time, but maybe this also hides if you don't have an ear for Spanish. But what's worst of all is the plot itself: full of images within the images, full of references to films any buff should get, but so, so lacking in depth and drama. Mr Almodovar is not interested in telling a story, he only wants to play conceptual games and mix them with some of his usual cliches -which, saddly enough, are the only moments that are barely enjoyable-. And the end? It creates the ilusion of a noir plot when in the end it was all chance? Could it get any more anticlimatic?

What's moved me to write this abrupt comment is the fact that you chose not to question any single aspect of a film as mediocre as Broken Embraces while you really had a hard time trying to aknowledge anything good in Kim Ki-duk's work. It just seems utterly unfair to be so strict when reviewing one and so forgiving when reviewing the other.


Posted by: John Márquez on Mar 28, 2010 11:14 AM | Permalink

I'm actually not as casually dismissive of Kim Ki-duk as you may think. I had actually written a rather positive article on Samaritan Girl a few years back at Senses of Cinema. At that time, I had liked the direction Kim was going with respect to being true to his earlier films (I actually like his early films a lot, especially The Isle while broadening his range and themes to something more accessible. That said, I think he's swung out too far on the other end of the spectrum and abandoned his earlier preoccupations for the sake of accessibility and broader exposure which I think is a shame. It's why I've lost interest in his films, at least in the meantime. I'd love to see him get back his older, more challenging (and disturbing) form.

As for the Almodóvar versus Kim argument, I'm sorry, but that's something of a false dichotomy to compare any filmmaker with another, especially when their approaches to film as so completely different. I think Broken Embraces stands on its own merits (or, as in your eyes, weaknesses), whether or not Kim is worth writing more about than I have dedicated on the site.

Posted by: acquarello on Mar 28, 2010 1:38 PM | Permalink

I didn't mean to compare Kim's and Almodovar's films side by side but the different way you approached both directors; what I mean to say is that I think you show some prejudices against Kim's films which get in the way of a fair analysis of his films.

One could also argue that Almodovar "(has) swung out too far on the other end of the spectrum and abandoned his earlier preoccupations for the sake of accessibility and broader exposure", although in his case instead of striving for a wider audience Almodovar is looking for recognition by film critics and cinephiles.

Regards, and thank you for this terrific site and for taking the time to answer my comment.

Posted by: John Márquez on Mar 29, 2010 8:27 AM | Permalink

One of the themes that keeps resurfacing in Kim's recent films is this kind of transcendentalist angle on the mundane which I think has the opposite effect because of the abtractness of his application. It somewhat worked in the context of Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall...and Spring because of the isolation (although enlightenment doesn't necessarily lead to martial arts powess), but "Zen and the art of breaking and entering" in 3-Iron was really a bizarre juxtaposition. There's also this quasi-Zen state in The Bow with archery which is also an odd pairing.

Anyway, I suppose you could argue that that's a prejudice, but I don't think so. I pay to watch the films I see, so I don't watch films that I'm not interested in. I came into these films expecting to like them, not looking for ammunition to bash Kim. A prejudice suggests that I came in with a preformed opinion against his work. That just didn't happen.

Posted by: acquarello on Mar 29, 2010 9:46 AM | Permalink

I think John Marquez has got a very valid point: could you or could you not blame Almodovar of what you are condemning Kim of, having abandoned his earlier preocupations for the sake of a wider appeal? His films have become all form and very little in the way of substance, great production value but cliched characters and stories. For a filmmaker that once tried to push the boundaries with regards to political correctness and taste, he's become rather dull.

I think your critics of Kim's movies revolve around you not liking his work because it doesn't go in the direction you think it should, but don't attempt to value the works themselves and their significance.

So yes, Marquez has a point: you are certainly much more forgiving with the flaws in Almodovar's movies that you are in Kim's, and that's about the simplest definition of prejudice. I don't believe you pay to watch a movie just so you can validate your criticism of Kim's work, but rather that you go with the hope that he'll have returned to the path you want him to tread on, and because of that you are continuously dissapointed.

Posted by: Anikaa on Feb 17, 2011 12:37 PM | Permalink

Not really interested in revisiting an exchange from a year ago. Sorry.

Posted by: acquarello on Feb 17, 2011 5:13 PM | Permalink

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