A man writes, lives and loves in darkness. Fourteen years before, he was in a brutal car crash on the island of Lanzarote. In the accident, he didn't lose only his sight, he also lost Lena, the love of his life.
This man uses two names: Harry Caine, a playful pseudonym with which he signs his literary works, stories and scripts, and Mateo Blanco, his real name, with which he lives and signs the film he directs. After the accident, Mateo Blanco reduces himself to his pseudonym, Harry Caine. If he can't direct films he can only survive with the idea that Mateo Blanco died on Lanzarote with his beloved Lena.
In the present day, Harry Caine lives thanks to the scripts he writes and to the help he gets from his faithful former production manager, Judit García, and from Diego, her son, his secretary, typist and guide.
Since he decided to live and tell stories, Harry is an active, attractive blind man who has developed all his other senses in order to enjoy life, on a basis of irony and self-induced amnesia. He has erased from his biography any trace of his first identity, Mateo Blanco.
One night Diego has an accident and Harry takes care of him (his mother, Judit, is out of Madrid and they decide not to tell her anything so as not to alarm her). During the first nights of his convalescence, Diego asks him about the time when he answered to the name of Mateo Blanco, after a moment of astonishment Harry can't refuse and he tells Diego what happened fourteen years before with the idea of entertaining him, just as a father tells his little child a story so that he'll fall asleep.
The story of Mateo, Lena, Judit and Ernesto Martel is a story of "amour fou", dominated by fatality, jealously, the abuse of power, treachery and a guilt complex. A moving and terrible story, the most expressive image of which is the photo of two lovers embracing, torn into a thousand pieces.
The two protagonists, who have taken refuge in a bungalow at Famara Beach, on a mountainside facing the beach, are lying in each other's arms on a couch. They are watching, on a little television set, "Viaggio in Italia" by Rossellini.
The film tells of the collapse of an American marriage -the couple are played by Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders- during a trip to Italy. On the television we see the sequence in which Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders visit some excavations in Pompeii just when the workers are carefully digging up the remains of the ancient city, destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius two thousand years before. Sanders and Bergman witness how the men who are excavating there find the bodies of a man and a woman together ("perhaps husband and wife", says the archaeologist), whom the lava immortalized while they were sleeping. The image is a shock for Ingrid Bergman who walks off a few feet, shaken by the emotion. The immortalized love of the couple from thousands of years before makes her think of the deterioration and pettiness of her own marriage. And she can't hold back her tears.
It's a simple scene, not at all rhetorical, direct and deeply moving. After seeing it on the television, Lena (Penélope Cruz) hides her face on the chest of her lover (Lluìs Homar), as moved as Ingrid Bergman although, unlike her, Lena is being firmly embraced by the person she loves.
She thinks she'd like to die like that, wrapped in an eternal embrace with Mateo. He guesses Lena's fervent desire. He gets up from the couch, sets up his camera and puts it on automatic. He goes back beside Lena, embraces her tightly, the two look at the camera until the flash immortalizes their embrace like the lava from the volcano in Rossellini's film.
But unlike what happens in the Italian film this won't be an eternal embrace. Weeks later someone will tear up that photo and many others.
The credits appear superimposed on a strange texture, very different from that of the rest of the film. It's a texture that's hard to identify. The images, stolen, show a couple in front of the camera, around them a group of men enter and leave the frame. The couple are silent, she facing the camera, he with his back to it, barely looking at each other.
These images were filmed, unknown to the protagonists, by the video camera that is linked up to the Panavision camera with which the film was shot.
This is a control camera to see the takes during and immediately after shooting them. Its images aren't printed, but that's what I did and the result is the strange texture that acts as background to the opening credits.
In these images the silent couple leave their positions in front of the camera and are replaced by Penélope Cruz and Lluís Homar. The man and the woman at the beginning are the lighting doubles for Penélope and Lluís.
Penélope looks strangely serious, she's concentrating, impervious to what's happening around her. In the next scene she'll have to cry and I guess she's getting in touch with her personal store of grief. Although her hairstyle is inspired by that of Audrey Hepburn in "Sabrina", her attitude reminds me of the replicant (Sean Young) in "Blade Runner". We can hardly see Lluís Homar's face, he has his back to us, motionless, looking at Penélope. They seem like two strangers.
The director of photography blocks the camera lens with his head, creating a spontaneous fade to black. This is a film in which the fades to black are very significant.
I chose these images to begin the film because they are stolen and furtive images that establish cinema as the territory where most of the action will take place. Also because I'm fascinated by the casual scenes that occur in front of the camera in those moments when no one is shooting. I often stand spellbound looking at them, for me they are a real show.
Shoots today (and life as well) are full of different sized screens which reflect the film and its surroundings… I'm fascinated by all the surfaces that reflect the film. Reflections add a ghostly, mysterious quality to the reflected image.
The plot of "Broken Embraces" dramatizes the importance of editing, its direct relationship with the director and the fragility of the film if someone gets between the editing and the director.
Editing is in the origin of the narrative, it is the cinematic narrative, strictly speaking.
I edited my first sixteen films on a moviola. So I'm paying homage to that machine, so closely linked to my cinematic biography, and to all the magnetic and photographic materials that new technology has swept from the editing rooms.
It isn't by chance that there's a close-up of the core of a reel rewinding frantically, and that this image dissolves to that of Mateo hurrying down the studio steps. Both movements evolve at the same rate and in the same direction. Both have the same center and it's the same passion that drives them.
But I don't want to be nostalgic, above all I don't want to be paralyzed by nostalgia. I'm willing to embrace the new techniques, in the same way that Mateo embraces on the television the kiss that is so digitally enlarged it looks totally broken on the screen. It is precisely the flickering of the pixelation that makes the image so forceful.
The protagonists of "Broken Embraces" are shooting a comedy, "Girls and Suitcases". Mateo Blanco is the director and Lena Rivero is the protagonist. Judit García is the production manager and Ernesto Martel, Lena's lover, is the producer. Ernesto Martel Junior is in charge of the "making of" video.
Mateo falls in love with Lena from the moment he sees her, the same thing happens to Lena (although she's living with Martel and the tycoon is madly in love with her). Years before, Judit had a love affair with Mateo and still hasn't got over it, although that doesn't prevent her from working with him, in fact she's his right hand. Ernesto Martel is a broker (from the generation of the financial boom of the 80s) with lots of money and few scruples. He isn't a producer, but as Lena shows an inclination for Thalia's art, he produces Mateo's film in a desperate effort to hold on to her. Ernesto Martel's son, named after his father, is a childish young man who likes cinema and men, in particular Mateo. Martel Senior commissions Martel Junior to make a documentary about "Girls and Suitcases", what would now be called a "making of", that way he can spy on Lena. His only problem isn't moral, but technical. The first videos have got terrible sound. Martel Senior improvises and reinvents dubbing, hiring a neutral lip reader.
All these elements are typical of a comedy, but "Broken Embraces" is a drama with very dark touches, more like a 50s thriller.
Although morally I detest the way Martel is using the "making of", a mere pretext in order to control all of Lena and Mateo's movements on and off the set, I like the idea that the "making of" is a parallel narrative to the original (the film which it reflects), an independent, furtive narrative.
I've always dreamed of making a film whose story is seen through a "making of". A "Making of" reveals not only the technical secrets but also the secrets of the people responsible for cooking up and coordinating the fiction, at times embodying it. It turns those responsible for the fiction into fiction.
The ideal "making of" should strengthen and complete the original story. But it can be dangerous (all fiction is dangerous and also therapeutic, that's why we find it irresistible), it's a living material, moved by its own impulses which can only be tamed and transformed if you submit them to editing. Martel Senior sees the filmed material in its raw state. He projects the video tapes just as they come from his son's camera, supervised only by the lip reading automaton.
When Lena comes into the large sitting room of the mansion and finds Ernesto Martel, with the lip reader, viewing her violent argument with Ernesto Junior, Lena becomes a duplicate of herself, the woman who from the screen confesses to Martel that she doesn't love him. At that moment, the "making of", produced by Martel with perverse intentions, turns against him. Lena leaves him doubly, on the screen and from the door of the sitting room, behind him. As a result of Martel's harassment, the humiliation and pain when Lena leaves him is doubled.
DUPLICATION (NOT DUPLICITY)
The "double" is one of the hallmarks of "Broken Embraces". The "double" not in the sense of a moral term ("ambiguity", "duplicity"), but as "duplication, repetition or enlargement".
The film begins with the image of the protagonists' two stand-ins.
Ernesto Martel Junior duplicates his father's behavior, even though he's the last model he would like to imitate.
When his father dies, Martel Junior plans to take his revenge on his memory with a film that tells how his father crushed and destroyed him while he was alive. Even though he's homosexual, Martel Junior got married twice, like his father. He's got two children who hate him as much as he hates his father (in this character's construction there are echoes of the story of Hemingway and his son Gregory who as a young boy liked the feel of silk and taffeta, and who, after drinking more than his father, hunting larger elephants than he had hunted and having had more children than the writer had, ended up having a sex change when he was almost sixty, fifteen years after the death of his famous father).
Martel Junior's story isn't as terrible. After his father's death, he unconsciously continues to imitate the paternal behavior he detests so much.
The male protagonist has got "two" names.
When blind Mateo starts to call himself Harry Caine, he does so to escape from himself. His reality is unbearable. He can only survive by "supplanting" or "duplicating" himself.
Before the accident, Harry Caine was already a prolongation of himself. Mateo Blanco had playfully invented the pseudonym in order to sign the scripts and stories he wrote. Like many authors, fiction was a rehearsal of reality.
A director who can't direct and who moreover has lost the woman he adored, has only got grief and despair to look forward to; if he wants to survive he'll have to do so through imposture.
Several of the characters in "Broken Embraces" work in film. I've always said that for me film is "representation" of reality and at times is its most faithful reflection, its "duplication".
Even though, the moment they are finished, all films are the past, I see premonitory qualities in them. It's a theory that appears frequently in my filmography. In "Matador", the two protagonists go into a cinema where "Duel in the Sun" is being shown. They arrive just at the end, when Jennifer Jones fires at and in turn is gunned down by Gregory Peck, with whom she melds in (another) eternal embrace. The female lawyer and the bullfighter in "Matador" see the anticipation of their own end on the screen.
Something similar happens in "Bad Education" when Mr. Berenguer and the devilish Angel go into a cinema as an alibi in order to kill some time, while Ángel's brother is dying, the victim of exceptionally pure heroin which both of them have given to him, the cinema is showing two thrillers "Double Identity" (by Billy Wilder)and "Thérèse Raquin"(by Marcel Carné). Both tell of crimes by lovers, similar to the one they have committed. The cinema maintains a very vivid awareness of crimes carried out by lovers who were induced to commit them.
When they leave the cinema, Mr. Berenguer (the lover who has become a criminal), overwhelmed, laments: "It's as if all the films were talking about us".
Film and reality: Two ride together
Penélope Cruz plays "two" characters in "Broken Embraces". Magdalena, a woman who is too beautiful and too poor to resist the poisoned generosity of the tycoon Ernesto Martel. And Pina, her counter-figure, the protagonist of "Girls and Suitcases".
GIRLS AND SUITCASES
I won't deny that "Girls and Suitcases" is freely based on "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" But it isn't a self-homage, I hope no one interprets it like that.
When I was writing the script I decided that Mateo Blanco would be filming a comedy because it is the opposite genre to the drama the protagonists are living. In that way their problems would take on greater relevance, and the efforts, for example, by Lena to achieve the light, sparkling tone that comedy demands are more obvious and pathetic.
I only needed three or four sequences of "Girls and Suitcases" to act as background to the main story and I thought the best thing was to adapt some of my own material in which I could move with total freedom. That's why I chose "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown".
Once we were in the penthouse of the new "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" (curiously we shot this duplication in the same corner of the studio where I filmed the original twenty years ago) I had great fun adapting myself. The experience was so inspiring I wrote and filmed more sequences than necessary. I couldn't include them in the final edit because their tone is the opposite to that of the general narrative and they'd be disconcerting. I'd imagined as much when we were filming them but I couldn't resist the temptation. Fortunately there'll be the DVD and they'll be included in it as additional material.
In this new version of "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" Pina isn't an adaptation of the role played by Carmen Maura, but rather of the role of her model friend Candela. The character also has echoes of Holly Golightly from "Breakfast at Tiffany's", the most modern ingénue of cinema and American literature, although the hairstyle is that of another character played by Audrey Hepburn, Sabrina.
Most of the female roles I've written in my life are a mixture of my mother and her neighbors in La Mancha, mixed with Golightly, the Giulietta Masina of "La strada" and the Shirley MacLaine of "Some Came Running" (V. Minnelli) and "The Apartment" (B. Wilder).
All those women are inside Penélope, so are their opposites, the "grandes dames" of American film noir, Gene Tierney, Linda Darnell, Constance Bennett. Penélope can be any of them, and also Sofia Loren, Magnani and Claudia Cardinale and all the heroines of Italian neo-realism, a style that has always been an inspiration to me.
When Lena falls into Ernesto Martel's clutches she has all the attributes of the "femme fatale", dark, ambitious beauty, a humble past and a family in a precarious situation, the intelligence not to resign herself and to take risks; but she has too many scruples and she lacks cynicism. Her love for Mateo precipitates her tragedy, even though she would have eventually left the tycoon and he wouldn't have allowed it.Read more
UP AND DOWN
The staircase is a real cinematic icon. It suggests the idea of displacement, and movement is what differentiates cinema from photography. I remember the staircase which the pregnant Gene Tierney throws herself down in "Leave Her to Heaven" (John M. Stahl), along with "Él", by Luis Buñuel, the best film about the madness of jealousy.Read more
Once again duplicity.In Lanzarote, Lena and Mateo are looking at the impressive Golfo Beach. Mateo is taking photos, while Lena embraces him from behind. They don't see them, but down below, on the beach of black sand, an embracing couple mirrors them.Read more
PARENTS AND CHILDREN. THE MONOLOGUE
One of the important themes in the film is the relationship between parents and children, maternity and paternity. The family, in short.Read more
DECLARATION OF LOVE
Cinema plays a very important role in all my films. I don't do it as a pupil revering those directors who have preceded him. I don't make films "in the style of". When a director or a film appears in one of mine, it's in a more active way than as a simple homage or a nod at the spectator.Read more
PEDRO ALMODÓVAR - BIOGRAPHY
He was born in Calzada de Calatrava, province of Ciudad Real, in the heart of La Mancha, in the 50s. When he was eight, he emigrated with his family to Estremadura. There he studied for his elementary and high school diplomas respectively with the Salesian Fathers and the Franciscans.
At seventeen, he left home and moved to Madrid, with no money and no job, but with a very specific project in mind: to study cinema and direct films. It was impossible to enrol in the Official Film School because Franco had just closed it. Despite the dictatorship that was suffocating the country, for an adolescent from the provinces Madrid represented culture, independence and freedom. He worked at many, sporadic jobs but couldn't buy his first Super-8mm camera until he got a "serious" job at the National Telephone Company of Spain in 1971. He worked there for twelve years as an administrative assistant, he shared this job in the mornings with other multiple activities which provided his real training as a filmmaker and as a person. Read more
THE ART OF WORLD CINEMA