Broken Embraces

Broken Embraces
  • Country of production: Spain / UK
  • Year: 2009
  • Certificate: 15
  • Director: Pedro Almodovar
  • Running time: 128 minutes
  • Official website:

is the latest stylish offering from celebrated director PEDRO ALMODÓVAR who also wrote the screenplay. A cleverly constructed melodrama with manifold revelations and narrative twists, it combines dark elements reminiscent of 1950s thrillers with humour. Starring PENÉLOPE CRUZ it is polished and vivid, a rich visual experience. ‘Elegant and exuberant... pure moviegoing pleasure', said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian.

It features a film within a film within a film. A blind scriptwriter who had been a film director before losing his sight in a car crash recalls a passionate affair with the leading lady of his last movie. She had also been the mistress of the unscrupulous industrialist financing the picture, who got his son to film the making of that movie in order to keep an eye on her.

Broken Embraces shows Almodóvar's command of his medium. The opening credits reveal footage of lighting doubles for the main characters shot with the video camera  attached to the normal camera, which is used to show takes during and immediately after shooting. These ‘stolen' images establish the idea of the audience seeing things the characters may not mean them to and set up the furtive, parallel narrative of the ‘making of' film.

The film is set first in Madrid and then moves to Lanzarote. In one scene the main couple are looking at a beach and he is taking photos while she holds him. They don't notice at the time, but on the beach below an embracing couple mirror them and can be seen at the bottom of the picture he takes. The photo which is used in the film had been taken by Almodóvar on an earlier visit there. He also hadn't seen the couple and discovered them when he got the print from the developers.

The protagonists then watch Rossellini's Voyage to Italy (1954), where Ingrid Bergman is shaken by the sight of an embracing couple immortalised by the lava at Pompeii. Reflecting this, they take a picture of themselves embracing which is later found torn up.

Cinematic references abound. Indeed the comedy being filmed, Girls and Suitcases, is based on one of Almodóvar's own previous films, Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

There are also shades of Hitchcock when Agustin Almodóvar, Pedro's brother and the film's producer, appears as an employee of Ernesto Martel in the scene where Lena returns from hospital on crutches. He has, in fact, cameos in 15 of Pedro Almodóvar's 17 films.


Broken Embraces


‘The clashing genres of noir, melodrama and comedy vie for supremacy... a rollicking struggle that, in the hands of consummate ringmaster Almodóvar, is a joy to watch'


The repeated, jaunty ring of the front door bell in the first scene evokes a bedroom farce as a succession of people enter and just miss catching blind former film director "Harry Caine" with his trousers down after seducing a woman who then re-enters via the bathroom door. This presages the later comedy but the focus quickly shifts to serious matters, one of several occasions when the film deliberately undermines a particular mood. Almodóvar deploys opposing genres in order to throw each of them into sharper relief: the protagonists' problems take on greater significance while the efforts to achieve the light, sparkling tone that comedy demands appear obvious.

This clash of genres (comedy and film noir) with the associated interplay of light and darkness, colour and shadow is not the only way in which things run counter to each other in the film. Other elements of incongruity catch our attention too: a blind man looking through a peephole; Penélope Cruz's character Lena acting while consumed by passion and heartache; fluorescent lights in broad daylight; bitter orange with chocolate; black sand dunes; the couple holed up in a hotel amidst the open spaces of Lanzarote; Scandinavian English accents in Spain; a mobile sculpture and... broken embraces.

There is ‘an artful flow of constantly resonating moments which sends the brain ping ponging in all directions'. The plot is involved so it is a tribute that ‘this intricate fusion of disparate elements hangs together as well as it does' (Nick Funnell, Time Out).

Girls and staircases

Noir elements signal the impending events. Staircases feature prominently, suggestive of films like Kiss of Death (1947) in which Richard Widmark pushes a woman from the top of a staircase. Shadows cast in geometric patterns also show things being carefully orchestrated. Other clues are the name Ray X and knowing comments like "People don't fall downstairs, that only happens in films".

Replication and reflection

Replication and parallel stories are hallmarks of the film: the male protagonist supplanting himself using another name; the ‘making of' film; fathers not acknowledging their sons; the financier's son replicating his father's behaviour; and mirror images of couples embracing. In one especially memorable scene Cruz dubs the words her character is uttering over the silent footage the financier is watching and she appears to him both on screen and in reality. Harry Caine also parallels Almodóvar, who conceived the idea of a blind film-maker while recovering from a migraine in a darkened room.

While frames within the frame, such as camera lenses and car windows, underscore enclosure and entrapment, shots of the leads through mirrors suggest duplicity and masquerade. The picture is ‘ravishing in its artifice', said Barry Byrne in Screen International. In particular, Cruz's exquisiteness consists at least partly in its fabricated quality, according to Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. When she poses in a Marilyn wig, the director Mateo tells her "Don't smile, the wig is false enough".

Broken Embraces is ‘slick and sleek, with a sensuous feel for the cinematic surfaces of things' (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian). The downside of this is that it may not appear quite as warm and the characters as deep as previous Almodóvar films. ‘Embraces is made not of flesh and blood, but of celluloid.'(Jonathan Holland, Variety).

Almodóvar's judgement has been questioned for using use one of his own films as source material and having the other characters tell the director "it's wonderful". He says this is not meant as self-homage but was simply because he could operate freely with this material.

Penélope Cruz is mesmerising as a woman marked by fatality. In her presence Almodóvar's camera ‘goes into a kind of swooning trance' (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian).

Cruz apart, José Luis Gómez playing Ernesto Martel was the actor most praised: he ‘keeps ruthlessness, benevolence and vulnerability expertly mingling throughout' (Nick Funnell, Time Out).

The cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto was described as ‘exquisite' by several critics and the score by long-time collaborator Alberto Iglesias evokes the many movie styles embraced.


Broken Embraces



Pedro Almodóvar is one of modern cinema's most admired directors, but this hallowed reputation is far removed from his early years. Born in a small Spanish town in the impoverished region of La Mancha in September 1949, Almodóvar took off to Madrid in the late 1960s. While working as an administrative assistant for the national telephone company he became part of that city's burgeoning underground arts scene, contributing stories to comic strip magazines, performing cabaret theatre, playing in a rock group and making short films. These shorts developed a cult following and their provocative, humorous, playful approach to sexuality reflected the freedom of La Movida, the countercultural movement that took place in Madrid during the ten years immediately following the death of Franco in 1975.

That outrageous sensibility persisted in his early features: comedies like Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980) and Dark Habits (1983), set in a convent of nuns. Perfecting his craft on polished comedies like What I Have Done to Deserve This? (1984) and dark melodramas like Matador (1986), a film about the lethal sex drives of a former matador and high-powered female lawyer, Almodóvar finally achieved his international breakthrough with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). A glossy ensemble comedy about a jilted middle-aged woman, it owed a debt to Hollywood comedies of the 1950s and showcased Almodóvar's theatrical sense of style together with a gift for working with actresses that has earned him his reputation as the consummate ‘women's director'.

More campy sophistication followed with Tie Me Up Tie Me Down (1990), High Heels (1991) and Kika (1993). But in the late 1990s the director developed a more subdued and restrained style, notably in his 1997 version of British writer Ruth Rendell's crime novel Live Flesh, which remains Almodóvar's only adaptation.

That picture set the tone for the mature, emotional depth of his more recent films. All About My Mother (1999), his stunning portrait of a middle-aged actress grieving the sudden death of her son, is probably his most moving film. Talk to Her (2002) is a complex tale of two men in love with comatose women told with passion and compelling elegance that won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Bad Education (2004), about growing up in a religious school, is his most explicitly autobiographical, while Volver (2006) saw the director write his star Penélope Cruz her greatest role, as a tough working-class woman.

Constantly surprising his audience with shifts of tone and approach, Almodóvar has few equals in European cinema.



Penélope Cruz has achieved what has eluded so many other European actors in becoming a huge star in both her home country and Hollywood.

Born in Madrid, Cruz first trained as a dancer but her striking looks soon caught the attention of Spanish film producers. Her astute eye for talented directors was evident from the beginning. Her first screen role was in Bigas Luna's Oscar-nominated, erotically-charged comedy drama Jamón, Jamón (1992), which also featured her future off-screen boyfriend Javier Bardem. She was later memorable as the romantic interest in Alejandro Amenábar's twisty psychological science-fiction thriller Open Your Eyes (1997). And it wasn't long before Spain's foremost director of women, Pedro Almodóvar, cast her in his 1997 thriller Live Flesh. This started an association that continued with Cruz's performance as a lesbian nun in All About My Mother.

Hollywood wasn't far behind either, and Cruz's early roles in the US included playing the daughter of a Mexican rancher in post-war Western The Hi-Lo Country (1998) and a Brazilian chef in the 2000 comedy Women on Top.

A period as Tom Cruise's girlfriend - with whom she remade the Spanish film Open Your Eyes as Vanilla Sky in 2001 - bolstered her US profile. But ironically it was a return to her Spanish roots that confirmed Cruz's star charisma. As the feisty, single-mother heroine of Almodóvar's Volver in 2006, Cruz combined glamour and grit to give a performance of great warmth and emotional subtlety. She was rightly Oscar nominated (unusually for a part in a foreign-language film) and she was finally to win that coveted award for another Spanish-speaking part, as the tempestuous artist in Woody Allen's enjoyable Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). The Oscar was a recognition of Cruz's achievements so far; still in her mid-thirties, her talent and variety are undimmed.



Lluís Homar is one of Spain's most established film actors, but it wasn't until 2004 that he acted for Almodóvar, playing a defrocked priest in the director's dark melodrama Bad Education. In a career that includes over 60 film and TV titles Homar has worked with almost every notable Spanish director, as well as developing a stellar reputation as a stage actor. Typically a character actor rather than a leading man, Homar is a recognisable presence in a string of Spanish films which have been released in the UK: most recently the gripping maths-themed thriller Fermat's Room (2008) and the whimsical black comedy To Die in San Hilario (2004).



Probably as well known in Spain for her stage roles as for her screen roles, Portillo has nevertheless appeared in a number of high-profile Spanish films, including Goya's Ghost (2006), about the artist's persecution as a heretic. Her biggest cinema role to date came courtesy of Almodóvar, who cast her as a family friend to Penélope Cruz's character in Volver. Nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Goya (Spain's Oscars), Portillo also had the unusual experience of sharing a ‘best actress' award with five fellow Volver performers at that year's Cannes film festival.



Now aged 69 and a veteran of Spanish cinema and theatre, the actor's many titles include the 1976 psychological drama Pascual Duarte, for which he was awarded the Best Actor prize at Cannes, and Goya's Ghost, alongside Blanca Portillo. In addition to his distinguished acting career, Gómez has also directed theatre and opera.



The Goya award for best newcomer that he received in 2001 for his performance in the World War II drama Silencio Roto suggested a promising future. It's a promise that Ochandiano - not yet in his thirties - has confirmed, with memorable performances in some 15 Spanish films and as a regular fixture in Spanish TV drama. He has already acted for such international directors as Steven Soderbergh in Che: Part Two (2008) and Mexican auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu in his keenly anticipated new film Biutiful, in which he'll be re-united with Broken Embraces co-star Portillo.



Like his co-star Ochandiano, Novas was the recipient of a Goya for best newcomer. That was awarded for his moving turn in The Sea Inside (2004), in which he played the young boy to whom bedbound paraplegic Javier Bardem becomes a father figure. Since then, he has given memorable performances in high-profile Spanish movies like Goya's Ghost while pursuing a successful career in Spanish TV drama.


Broken Embraces

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