I enjoyed the latest Almodóvar film, but I wasn’t excited by it – at least initially. It is more of an investigation of filmmaking than a melodrama, more a Bad Education noir thriller/romance than a Volver or an All About My Mother. Always ravishing to look at, the film seemed clever and intriguing rather than emotionally involving. Or more precisely, I didn’t ‘get’ the emotion until the closing quarter of the narrative. Perhaps if I watch it again, I’ll get more.
The story involves a filmmaker, Mateo (Lluís Homar), who is a blind scriptwriter when we first meet him, preferring to be known by his writing pseudoynm Harry Caine. (This is an intriguing name – is Almodóvar really interested in Michael Caine/Harry Palmer or is it a film noir reference to James M. Cain?). Mateo/Harry is supported by his agent Judit and her son Diego who acts as his amanuensis and surrogate son. The ‘inciting incident’ in the opening scenes is the newspaper announcement of the death of a wealthy industrialist, Ernesto Martel. A flashback to 1992 introduces us to the other two main characters in the narrative, Ernesto and his secretary Magdalena (Penélope Cruz). I’ll say no more than that the plot involves the making of a film with Mateo as director and ‘Lena’ as star. This is a film which clearly references Almodóvar’s first ‘breakout’ international hit, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Spain 1987).
There are several other direct references. At one point Mateo and Lena watch a scene from Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Italy 1954). This is a film that I admire, but have also found difficult to engage with and I was at first baffled as to its significance here. Later I realised that the scene from Rossellini is possibly the basis for Almodóvar’s title. In the story, Ingrid Bergman (then married to Rossellini) plays a woman married to an Englishman (George Sanders). The couple have rented a villa in Southern Italy but their marriage is going through a very tricky time and when they visit the ruins of Pompeii, Ingrid breaks down at the image (described by the guide) of a couple overwhelmed by the lava flow that destroyed the city – and dying together in each other’s arms. Of course, this and several other references are explained in the film’s Press Pack – which I wish I’d read first and then I might have noticed a few more similar references. Almodóvar suggests in the Press Pack that the film is indeed about cinema and particularly about editing. Viaggio in Italia is also interesting in terms of the scripting process as well in that it is famously the film which Rossellini didn’t script but developed as he went along (goading and bewildering Sanders in the process, thus producing exactly the performance he wanted).
Several of the other references are obviously plot-related including Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (I think it was in there somewhere!) a genuine melodrama in which Jane Wyman falls for the man whose rash behaviour led to her husband’s death and her own blindness. Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold and several other noirs including Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven are also mentioned. Just as in Volver, Almodóvar revels in the chance to mould Penélope Cruz into visions of iconic stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. Cruz is simply breathtaking in the film, even if much of the time she is playing a role within a role. The whole film is incredibly beautiful and this was one digital print I won’t be complaining about – I’m glad I got to see it on the best possible big screen projection. A lot of credit must go to Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto who has now added Almodóvar to a list that includes Spike Lee and Ang Lee as well as Alejandro González Iñárritu.
I confess I do miss both the surrealism of early Almodóvar and the melodrama of some of his later films. The DVD scheduled for Broken Embraces promises some outtakes from the sequences of ‘Broken Suitcases’, the ‘film within the film’ – but perhaps I should watch Women on the Verge again?