If Francois Truffaut were still alive today in a perfect world, he would praise Pedro Almodovar's latest as a masterpiece valentine to cinema, and its lovely leading lady Lena (Penelope Cruz in the performance which should've been her meal ticket to the Best Supporting Actress Oscar instead of Nine) as his ultimate female alter ego, a woman who would risk her body for the sake of a director's vision. So bah, humbug to the critics who incessantly pointed out this was a notch below Almodovar's finest--although the supporting characters might not be as vividly written as Agrado from Todo Sobre mi Madre (then again, how many characters are?), Almodovar's aching passion for cinema is evident in every frame, from a loving cross-dissolve connecting a rolling film reel with a winding staircase to a visual quotation of Roberto Rossellini's beloved Voyage to Italy (seriously, is there one European filmmaker who doesn't love Rossellini's drama of remarriage?), and the director is wise enough to mix in splashes of visual color, humor and a truly tragic love story which stops Broken Embraces from being bogged down by its own nostalgia as the immensely popular--and overrated--Cinema Paradiso did. Instead, Almodovar chose American melodramas from the 1950s which highlighted the dark side of the Hollywood dream in equal balance with the alienating passion of artistic integrity, Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful and Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place as inspiration for his palette of desire--desire for a kept woman, desire to see, desire for cinema, desire for escape.
The entire sum of these desires is best evident in a sequence set to Cat Power's haunting "Werewolf", itself a tale of a woman's aching desire for a changing man as he once was, where director Mateo Blanco and his leading lady Lena, an abused, kept woman for a mogul doubling as the film's (within this film) producer, flee the emotional and physical tolls of making their film to the Canary Islands. On the impossibly heavenly beaches, her wounds heal and the lovers can finally breathe without constraint. It is in this sequence where Almodovar visually quotes Roberto Rossellini's Voyage to Italy, which plays on the TV as Mateo and Lena support each other on the couch. Lena cries openly looking at the anguished face of Ingrid Bergman, herself looking at the remains of a couple who died together in the volcanic eruption of Pompeii. It's an incredible synergy to watch one actress take notes with her eyes from one of the absolute goddesses of film (both as Penelope Cruz and her cinematic alter ego Lena), with Lena fully understanding the sincerity of love, and Mateo mutually reciprocating by way of taking a photograph of himself and Lena in lieu of the video camera he surely would've preferred. A flash, a photo, a moment, a memory.
They might not make them like they used to, but nobody makes them like Almodovar.