Films within films, references-a-go-go, sickness, women as actors…
After Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver brought him back to maternal melodrama, this tragi-romantic meta-noir executes an about-swerve to the Spanish auteur’s last-but-one, Bad Education. Embraces occasionally feels like Pedro’s settling on old grooves in lieu of finding new moves.
The action cuts between 1994 and now. In the present, Education’s Lluís Homar plays Mateo, a man who lost his sight in a car crash and pens scripts under a pseudonym, Harry Caine.
When he hears about the death of a dodgy financier, Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), he flashes back to the ’90s, when said money-man funded his film, Girls And Suitcases, on the condition that Martel’s mistress Lena (Penélope Cruz) takes a starring role. Lena and Mateo fall in love. Martel isn’t chuffed.
Meanwhile, Almodóvar romances movies. Nods to his Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown and All About My Mother (women, acting, illness) snuggle up alongside riffs on Rossellini (Voyage To Italy) and Vertigo. But the compensation for this familiar self-awareness is Almodóvar’s hungry eye, before which wigs and wallpaper alike drip sensuality.
From wall to gaudy wall, too, the film’s full of fine performances – not least Cruz, whose wholly persuasive feet-first delivery ranges from looking reliably sweet-shop glam to blowing chunks in a bathroom.
Surprises are faintly lacking, though, not least the ‘twist’. What twist? The revelation proves so bathetic, it barely even registers as such. Intimations of mortality anchor the film, but Almodóvar crowds the core issues.
There’s much to enjoy here, but not enough lingering emotional heft.