I walked out of the theater after Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces and my eyes refused to adjust back from the brilliant and colorful world of the film; the real world paled in comparison. Even as I shut them now, the vibrant reds, moody blues, and roaring yellows still swim against my eyelids. Almodovar does not just use color, he speaks with color. He allows the film to move solely through colors, which results in a visual journey that remains beautiful as it carries the viewer through difficult relationship trauma. The irony: all this magnificent color for a tale about a blind man and his emotional scars.
Broken Embraces is the story of an unexpectedly nuclear family that is tossed among the waves of torrid love affairs, greed, death and betrayal that spans over a decade. The protagonist of the film introduces himself as Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), which is a pseudonym he used to publish his work under. Mateo Blanco is his given name, but so much trauma and pain is attached to this name that he refuses to be known by it anymore. In 1994, he was a virile and passionate filmmaker, and it was then that he began his intense love affair with Lena (Penelope Cruz), but the repercussions of that relationship continue to cling to him. When Blanco first became involved with Lena, she was still in a relationship with an older multi-millionaire mogul, Martel. Martel was obsessed with Lena, but for her, the relationship only served a functional purpose; her father was sick and she needed the financial support of Martel to pay for his hospital bills. Lena meets Mateo and their affair begins almost instantaneously; their love is driven by an unsinkable passion. Martel’s radical obsession of Lena becomes problematic to say the least and Martel hires his son Ray X, an aspiring filmmaker in his own right, to spy on Lena and Mateo and to capture their relationship on tape. After the truth is revealed to Martel, he is infuriated. Never a man who would take no for an answer, Martel does everything in his power to separate the two lovers; unflinchingly resorting to extreme measures. Now, in 2008, Blanco is blind and alone; he is a screenwriter who depends on the support of his agent and confidante, Judit, and her son to make his living. Blanco discovers that Martel has died and this finally allows him to let go of the past. The film moves methodically between the two time periods, 1994 and 2008, in order to show in tandem the painful occurrences and the resulting scars. His blindness is a physical representation of the trauma he has been forced to endure. It is evident that the 2008 Blanco continues to be haunted by the events of the past but, throughout the film, he gradually learns to accept the support of his new family which consists of Judit and her son.
One thing is for sure, Almodovar is the master of arranging and presenting color in a frame; the cinematography is almost obscenely beautiful. What I mean is that the film is so beautiful, it takes away from the primacy of the narrative. The narrative is absolutely driven by color; color is used to define, reveal secret desires of, and draw connections between characters. Color in this film is key in heating up these emotional scenes to a boiling point but also in drawing out subtle changes in character relations. Color is used with such precision as to allow the viewer visual guides into the inner condition of the characters. The composition and placing of color within a scene is not only impeccably balanced and gorgeous, it also serves to evoke specific emotional reactions from the spectator. Whether the mise-en-scene is overwhelmingly white with a touch of red or tantalizingly red with hints of sea green, the color composition in the frame always produces a different emotional response. Therefore, the film takes you on more than spectacular a visual journey but an emotional one as well. The film begins with earthy washes of blue, gray and brown and as the film progresses, the colors begin to warm and quite suddenly, the entire frame is enveloped in melodramatic reds and melancholic yellows and there, the drama unfolds.
The color red is especially important in relation to Lena’s (Penelope Cruz) costuming. At the start of the film, Lena is seen wearing a dreary gray secretarial outfit, but underneath her blazer jacket, a tiny slip of red fabric is visible. Gradually the character moves on to wear red cardigans and red shoes; towards the end, it escalates to red dresses and shawls. The color red constantly changes meaning throughout the film. Sometimes it signals Lena as a vampiric femme fatale who sucks the life out of those she loves; at others, it represents her intense passion, love and care for Mateo. For example, in Lena’s relationship with Martel, the lack of red in her costuming can often depict how closed off she is to him; while as the wearing of red in conjunction with Martel can reveal her fiery, volatile nature. When Lena is with Mateo, the hot reds represent seduction and passion while as softer pinks and less intense reds bring across Lena’s genuine care for Mateo and her desire for intimacy. Other characters also have similar color motifs that surround them, (Judit’s inner condition is often depicted in a range of greens; Mateo’s in different shades of blues and browns) but Lena’s is the most striking.
Beyond revealing the internal condition of characters, color is also important in set design and shot composition. For instance, when Lena makes love for the first time with Mateo, the entire mise-en-scene is filled with hot reds and dark browns. The two are seen in a medium close-up with jump cuts and canted angles to really emphasize the passion and the heat between them. In contrast, when Lena is in the bedroom with her septuagenarian partner, Martel, everything in the frame is white and they are seen in a long shot. Lena and Martel are completely covered by a white sheet and the camera remains relatively static throughout, representing the banal nature of their relationship. In the very back of the room they are in, red curtains are visible symbolizing Lena’s passion for another man. Color in the set basically adds another layer to the narrative, further enriching our viewing experience.
In this film, Penelope Cruz is the very definition of beauty; she has an ethereal quality about her that permeates the barrier between the real world and the filmic world. She does a fantastic job of creating nuanced levels for the character of Lena. All the relationships in the film are multi-layered and Cruz is able to traverse these differences quite beautifully. In Lena’s relationship with Martel, although she wants to leave him, she still has a great deal of affection for him and Cruz was able to accurately portray this duality. Lluis Homar gave a very balanced performance of Mateo Blanco. The film depicts Blanco at two junctures in his life and Homar is able to capture the subtle and not so subtle changes within his character. All the supporting characters were quite strong, yet Ray X/Martel Jr. (Rub√©n Ochandiano) was so strongly caricatured that his character became comic relief rather than menacing. Ray X, the son of Lena’s partner Martel, has the potential to be very disturbing, but something about his costuming and very blatant gestures makes the character lack any depth. In Ochandiano’s performance, we lose a lot of a the rich textures that should have been attached to the character Ray X. In 1994, Ray X is an over the top square with his perfectly parted hair, his large thick-rimmed glasses and his high-pitched squeaky voice. Then, in 2008, Ray X becomes the polar opposite: a sophisticated homosexual with an overly dramatic flair. There were no levels to either of the performances, both were very one note. Ochandiano aside, the performances given were often heartbreakingly believable and moving.
Broken Embraces is an emotionally driven melodrama that uses both very broad strokes of intense feeling and a very delicate familial sensibility to mold the story. As much as this film is about brokenness, it also prioritizes the importance of healing, redemption and restoration. Much of the film is wonderfully developed however, the fulcrum of the film is set on something without much substance. Once this is revealed it makes many character motivations fall flat and certain plot elements less intriguing; ultimately, the underlying plot structure is often not rich or complex enough to compete with the sheer aesthetic beauty of the film. While there are definitely aspects of Embraces that do fall short, what sets it apart and makes it worth praising is the deliberate use of color in costuming and set design, the keen focus on framing and shot composition and the nuanced performances of the actors.