Feminists like to gripe about the “male gaze,” the way in which male-created art tends to objectify women, and y’know, every time I see some leering Michael Bay shot of Megan Fox’s butt, I’ll admit they have a point. But, on the other hand, where would cinema be without films like “In The Mood For Love,” “The Blue Angel,” or “Raise The Red Lantern,” all products of the male gaze in a very different sense.

Call it “cinema du muse,” but a hopeless, all-encompassing devotion to the very being of an actress is often the greatest source of inspiration for a male filmmaker. Sometimes this accompanies a romantic involvement or sublimated desire, but not always; even gay directors have their muses. (Where would Fassbinder have been without his creative partner Hanna Schygulla?)

Further proof can be found in the latest work by Madrid’s maestro Pedro Almodovar, whose “Broken Embraces” is about directors and their muses as much as it is a product of such a relationship. Penelope Cruz, Almodovar’s current muse, has frequently spoken of how she decided to become an actress after seeing the director’s racy 1990 film, “Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down,” and her blossoming as an actress has neatly coincided with her Almodovar phase.

Broken Embraces
Director Pedro Almodovar
Run Time 128 minutes
Language Spanish
Opens Now Showing

Almodovar, for his part, has now cast Cruz in four films — with their biggest success being 2006’s “Volver” — and in “Broken Embraces” his camera clearly worships the ground Cruz walks on in her 4-inch red stiletto heels.

Cruz has rarely appeared as ravishing as she does in “Broken Embraces,” where she plays an aspiring actress (and part-time hooker) named Lena who sleeps with a wealthy and much older producer, Ernesto (Jose Luis Gomez), in order to further her career. She falls into a passionate on-set romance with her director, Mateo (Lluis Homar), however, with tragic consequences for all concerned when the jealous Ernesto learns of their affair.

This being an Almodovar film, this short, straight summary hardly begins to scratch the surface. The entire above story is told in flashback, as Mateo is now a much older, blind screenwriter, who is reluctantly being forced to confront a past he had long buried. There’s a film within the film, Mateo’s project “Chicks with Suitcases,” a broad comedy which plays like a remake of Almodovar’s own “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”; it’s changed in the editing room from a career-starting masterpiece to a career-ending turkey by Ernesto.

Films about filmmaking can often seem hermetic, and this one’s a bit guilty as charged, with Almodovar himself describing it as “a declaration of love for cinema.” There’s a quote from the Rosselini film “Voyage to Italy” (which features Ingrid Bergman, Rosselini’s then lover and muse), and obvious nods to cinematic figures as diverse as Luis Bunuel, Orson Welles and Audrey Hepburn.

Unlike, say, “Inglourious Basterds,” which existed entirely in a universe of empty references, the characters in “Broken Embraces” don’t feel like two-dimensional pastiche. Just as “Volver” drew heavily on the director’s own childhood memories, the story here cuts close to reality. Cruz, for her part, knows something of the long, hard struggle to become an actress, and of the complications of on-set romance, and it certainly shows. The emotional intensity, nuance, and depth she brings to the role is on par with her best work of late, like “Non ti Muovere” and “Elegy”.

The film has all the sensual pleasures one would expect from Almodovar, with the bold, pop-art primary colors of regular art director Anton Gomez, the lucid and strikingly framed cinematography of new collaborator Rodrigo Prieto (“Amores Perros”), and a typically moody score by composer Alberto Iglesias (“The Kite Runner”). And let us not forget the power of Cruz; in the scene where she first meets Mateo, Almodovar presents her with a breathtaking flourish, as if he were seeking, once and for all, to ensconce her amid the pantheon of screen goddesses.

Equal parts noirish melodrama, farcical comedy, and old-school Euro-art flick homage (the shadow of Antonioni is particularly present), “Broken Embraces” fails to cohere in the warm, direct, audience-friendly manner that “Volver” did, and the labyrinthine plot here has frustrated some. A more telling charge is that it’s simply Almodovar doing Almodovar, that the radical taboo-busting iconoclast of yore has settled down into a comfortable, predictable pattern. That’s true to some extent, but while “Broken Embraces” displays a smooth, mature style, Almodovar is as interested as ever in the chaotic, unpredictable nature of desire.

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