Blind writer Lluís Homar begins his day memorably in the opening scene of Broken Embraces. Having been helped across the street by a beautiful woman, he successfully turns her offer to read him the news into a seduction. When their encounter ends, he looks satisfied but unmoved. Warned against letting strangers into his house by his manager (Blanca Portillo), he says that everything that could happen to him has already happened. He lives life as an epilogue, remembering a time before he lost his sight, when he directed acclaimed films under his own name instead of hacking them out under a pseudonym. And he remembers when love was a passionate thing, not a woman met in the morning, then gone by noon. His best day now can’t compare to the time he’s lost.
The latest from Pedro Almodóvar unfolds on two fronts. One follows Homar in 2008 as he’s offered the chance to write a film for a mysterious, wealthy patron (Rubén Ochandiano). The other flashes back to when he fell in love with the beautiful leading lady (Penélope Cruz, excellent as always when paired with Almodóvar) of his in-progress film. Fully aware Cruz is the mistress of a wealthy industrialist (José Luis Gómez), Homar knows he should leave her alone. But his heart isn’t the kind that’s capable of ignoring its desires. In this, he joins decades of Almodóvar characters in thrall to needs that could, and probably will, be their undoing.
Broken Embraces welds Douglas Sirk melodrama to the most gracefully unsettling elements of Alfred Hitchcock, wrapping both in the stylish, hushed elegance that’s become Almodóvar’s trademark since his mid-’90s reinvention. The scenes we see of Homar’s final film look a lot like the sort of candy-colored farce Almodóvar used to make before adopting the sadder, knowing tones of recent years. He’s moved on. His protagonist can’t, and Almodóvar barbs the twists of his familiar-looking love triangle with the pain of yesterday’s irretrievable pleasure. It’s a studied piece of filmmaking, but it’s driven, like Homar’s character, by a brokenhearted romanticism familiar to all the people who have woken up in a present they never would have wished for in the past.