You might notice that the original title of "Broken Embraces" is Spanish, "Los abrazos rotos." You might see that it's written and directed by art-house auteur Pedro Almodovar. You might recognize that it stars Penelope Cruz in one of those sultry Latin parts at which she excels like no other. So you might think "Broken Embraces" would be a moody, slightly incomprehensible foreign film that dazes with its originality.
You'd be wrong. Well, "Broken Embraces" is certainly moody, and that's one of its charms. But behind the style is disappointing substance, a melodramatic story that's as old as Hollywood.
The film opens with the blind Harry Caine (Lluis Homar) asking a gorgeous blonde who has just helped him home to describe herself. As soon as she says she's wearing high heels, he asks how high and she responds, "Very high," you know these two will end up in bed. Caine's life as a well-paid scriptwriter who still attracts the ladies doesn't seem so bad — until we find out how he became blind.
Fourteen years earlier, he was Mateo Blanco, a director working on a film called "Girls and Suitcases" that's not unlike Mr. Almodovar's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." He hires Lena (Miss Cruz) to star. She's a former secretary-cum-call-girl transformed by becoming the mistress of her old (in both senses of the word) boss, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luiz Gomez). Ernesto didn't want her to take the role; he thought he'd lose her, and he was right. Lena and Mateo soon begin an affair. It turns tragic when Ernesto has his resentful son Ernesto Jr. (Ruben Ochandiano) record the shoot and hires a lip reader to decipher director and star's private moments.
The audience learns all this as Harry/Mateo tells the tale to his assistant Diego (Tamar Novas). (Diego is responsible for the most hilarious scene in the film, one in which the two men collaborate on a script for a vampire movie that's very up-to-the-moment, though not meant for the young fans of "Twilight.") Diego's mother, Judit (Blanca Portillo) is the director's right-hand woman, though he doesn't know she has secrets of her own.
It's the tale-within-a-tale that disappoints. It's an age-old story of jealousy and recriminations that turns out, in the end, to be rather conventionally told. Director and star fall in love; her lover seeks revenge.
What makes it better than most is how it looks. "Broken Embraces" has the feel of a David Lynch film, with its mystery involving women and art, its small shots that mean so much and its almost fetishistic shots of a woman made up in various ways. That woman is Miss Cruz, and the camera hovers lovingly over her as she's alternately sassy and sad.
Mr. Homar is a worthy partner, a compelling presence who earns our interest without Miss Cruz's great beauty. Unfortunately, though, without the surface style — one that playfully recalls Hollywood history — this film would not.
TITLE: "Broken Embraces"
RATING: R (sexual content, language and some drug material)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Pedro Almodovar
RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes
WEB SITE: sonyclassics.com/brokenembraces
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS