The Auteur: Pedro Almodóvar
As he premieres his 17th feature film this November, Pedro Almodóvar finds himself in a somber mood. The celebrated Spanish auteur, who recently turned 60, is not feeling nostalgic, though Americans, it seems, are looking back to his earlier work—his 1988 film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, is slated to become both a Fox television series and a Broadway musical. If anything, Almodóvar is eager to move forward, having recently announced that he has his next four scripts in mind, with one complete and another nearly finished. No, he’s not looking back—the director just thinks his stories are becoming darker, less humorous, more reflective.
“It was my intention from the beginning to make a sober, austere film,” he says of Broken Embraces, the latest addition to his 30-plus-year oeuvre. “It was important that I differentiate it from my previous films. I wanted a drama dry of tears—not only lacking tears but not evoking tears. At this moment it is profoundly me.”
His new film barely resembles the tragicomic kitsch of earlier favorites like the Oscar-winning All About My Mother. Instead, it continues down the noirish path of Almodóvar’s last three projects, Volver, Bad Education, and Talk to Her. A labyrinthine, Hitchcockian melodrama, Broken Embraces tells the story of blind Spanish filmmaker Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), his producer, and her son, forced to relive their painful past when an aspiring director, Ray X, shows up at Caine’s doorstep in Madrid. Almodóvar then flashes back to 1992, when a beautiful secretary–cum–call girl, Lena (Almodóvar’s current muse, Penélope Cruz), takes up with her controlling millionaire boss, Ernesto Martel. An aspiring actress, Lena lands her first role in Caine’s new film, and the not-yet-blind director and actress fall in love and begin an affair, only to be spied on by Martel’s gay teen son, Ernesto Jr., who is taunted and ridiculed by his father. And that’s just the tip of the convoluted tale.
Arguably his most cerebral film to date, Broken Embraces isn’t an easy pill to swallow. As a tale of passion and treachery, a tribute to 1950s thrillers, and an Almodóvar love letter to moviemaking, the film stews in heartache and familial discord, specifically tension between Ernesto Jr. and his father. “Ernesto Jr. is a deeper character than you see on screen,” Almodóvar says. “Part of the movie is about fathers and sons, especially hugely powerful fathers that obliterate their sons.”
Almodóvar based that rocky relationship on the obscure story of Ernest Hemingway and his estranged son Gregory. “Gregory Hemingway married more women, had more children, drank way more, and hunted more elephants than this father,” Almodóvar says. “Then, close to the age of 60, he decided to change his sex and had a horrible ending.” Re-created as Gloria Hemingway, she eventually died of hypertension at age 69 in a Miami women’s prison cell in 2001. She’d been arrested for indecent exposure five days before, having been found naked with a dress and high heels in her hands.
“Ernesto Jr.’s story isn’t as terrible,” Almodóvar says. “But, like Hemingway, after his father’s death, he unconsciously imitates the paternal behavior he detests so much. Even though he is gay, he marries women and has children who hate him as much as he hated his own father. After his father dies, he decides he’s going to break that pattern and take charge of his life.” The adult Ernesto Jr. (soon revealed to be Ray X) also seeks vengeance with a film showing how his homophobic father crushed his spirit.
Long applauded for his frank portrayal of queer characters, Almodóvar has been candid about being gay since he can remember. “I come from a small rural town, and I left very young, at 17 years old, to go to Madrid, where I lived my life openly,” he says. “I was already out and leading my life, but I never got to tell my father before he died. I didn’t see the necessity in telling my parents, but later, at around 21, I told my mother and the family who was going to be part of my day-to-day life.”
As solemn as it is, Broken Embraces does contain vibrant moments that remind one of the kooky genius behind it. Almodóvar makes a cinematic Barbie doll of Cruz in one scene, posing Lena cheekily in different wigs and channeling Hollywood icons like Marilyn Monroe for Girls and Suitcases, the film within the film. In a snippet of Girls and Suitcases, Almodóvar fans will recognize winks to his earlier movies, including a jaw-dropping cameo. With its hysterical edge and vivid colors, the fictional comedy is really a pastiche of his own Kika and Women on the Verge.
Though he can’t quite explain America’s sudden renewed interest in the beloved latter film (he thinks the Desperate Housewives phenomenon has a lot to do with it), Almodóvar is excited to see how Broadway director Bart Sher, who won a Tony last year for his revival of South Pacific, has reinterpreted Women on the Verge. “I’m curious,” he says. “I don’t know exactly if I’ll love the result, but it’s exciting. No Spanish film has experienced this sort of popularity.” Almodóvar has made some changes to the script but says he’s kept his distance from the show. “It’s really their project and I’m just collaborating. I’m just the father of the child.” — Jason Lamphier