Toward the end of Broken Embraces the camera hangs directly above a coffee table. The table overflows with thousands of torn strips, squares and triangles of photographs. The table, rectangular and black beneath the clippings, suggests some thematic parallel with the camera’s, or even the film’s, vision. The shot is a violent splash of color, yet also vaguely reminiscent of the odd shapes and sharp, sweeping lines in Picasso’s Guernica. You begin to think, like you do when you see the Guernica, that pain begets beauty. It’s a pretty thought, but for the fact that anyone involved with war might more likely prefer to have their life back rather than a work of art. Catharsis, artistic or otherwise, itself is not healing. The tension between pain and beauty- or more properly; what you choose to feel when you see something so evil so aesthetically pleasing- lingers throughout Broken Embraces, although that’s not to say that it’s a moral film.
It isn’t a moral film because there isn’t any moralizing, and further because there isn’t much by way of plot. But there is tension, and whole lot of it. Some tension arises simply out of the oddness of a monologue, some out of a single comment and some from more typical situations (adultery-of a kind, illness and so forth). The film weighs so heavily with characters that you might even take tension itself to be one of the principal characters. And why stop there? The film that is being made within the film, Girls and Suitcases, is certainly Broken Embraces‘ central character. It preys on its producer, haunts its director, creates-and consumes- the life of its main actress. It seems almost as though you were in a place where nothing is more natural, more central, more salient, than films. They are life forms, and their evolution is just as dramatic, vast and enigmatic as Darwin’s biology. Almodovar’s is a world as fertile as it is unforgiving.
The overwhelming presence of character in the film assumes the space that in other films would be filled by story. The narrative, consequently, is a bit odd. It is, in a very limited sense, like that of Proust; the whole act of film making seems to be an effort to regain time. You are submersed in the hazy vicissitudes of the past, one that is being constantly recreated, constantly re-collected, one that is never-like Faulkner says- past. Your world, it seems, may be best understood through certain cuts, particular frames, a spell of dialogue- none of which need have anything to do at all with your actual history.
But what is, for lack of a better phrase, actually going on? A writer, by his own introduction, is recreating his life due to the fact that he is now blind. He works with his producer, who in her introduction looks more like his wife, and her son, and the story begins with a death of someone they know, followed immediately by the appearance of the dead man’s son. With that the story begins to descend into memory, or the realm of memory, in which the landscape is an abundance of images, all overlapping one another and enveloping one another; you cannot step in one direction without opening the way to two more. There is a film being made. There is a romance between the director and the actress. There is a film being made about the film being made. There are no class conflicts, no real breaches of morality (no one is married, and no one is likely to be so), no conventions beholding anyone to act. Each character’s actions defer to no higher rule than themselves, which, frankly, makes it strange when you see them suffer. Stranger still, by their art, just as by their lives, they present a world in which not only pain begets beauty, but beauty begets pain.