Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces is an attempt at film noir; it comes off as film rose. The movie has all the elements that Americans have come to expect from romantic European exports—it’s leisurely, uninhibited, sophisticated, pretty. But Almodóvar tries to jam the appurtenances of old-school American pulp on to the frolicsome Old World obverse, and they just don’t stick.
This isn’t to say that film noir is a Teflon genre; it’s been a popular pomo-tivator for artists in the last few decades, partly because of the movies’ idiosyncratic gaudiness. Filmmakers understandably like to toy with canted angles and chiaroscuro, with light filtering in from louvers, and the silvery wisps of smoke that hover in it. All this can be show-offish, yes, but it’s also shorthand for how yummy those dark corners of civilization can be. (The problem arises when filmmakers overwork the fancy-pants effects to compensate for their creative shortcomings—when, after the smog disappears, and the coughing fit abates, one sees that there was nothing behind the fumes.) Crucially, though, noirs’ nocturnal underworlds betray outdated notions of justice and evil. Modern filmmakers who’ve co-opted the noir style—such as the Coen brothers, David Lynch, and, to an extent, Martin Scorsese—can dig the ostentation while still having it inform their descants.
Like most factory-film genres, noirs were often normative. Bad things happened to bad people in most Hollywood releases; but, in noirs alone—following in the ’30s gangster movies’ wake—the bad people were the protagonists. (I’m speaking less about detective features than I am thrillers like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, which, like Broken Embraces, concerned infidelity.) By contrast, the lawmen and pioneers of Westerns were poster children for good-ol’ American Progress. Until circa Vietnam, the notion that our frontier forebears were anything but tough-willed and pure at heart was considered unsalable in the mass-media marketplace. However, the dregs dredged up by noirs (which were set in the present day) were everymen who’d given in to temptation. By the standards of 1940s and ’50s censorship, those were justified grounds for finger wagging; but, to audiences, such indiscretions were probably a welcome relief from their usual doses of Hollywood virtue. Some noirs winked at the audience from behind their censorial cages: If Bogart and Bacall’s double entendres in The Big Sleep were literalized, their dirty talk might make sexters squeamish. But all noirs were products of repression—censorial and societal.
Francisco Franco prehistory aside, Almodóvar’s blue-skied Madrid seems as repressive as a topless beach. The only agent of repression in Broken Embraces is, true to form, the rich cuckolded husband (José Luis Gómez). He knew all along that he wouldn’t be able to maintain his grip on lovely Lena (Penélope Cruz—performing well, though lacking the vivacity she had in Vicky Cristina Barcelona), particularly when she signed up to make her acting début in a film by pickup artist Mateo (Lluís Homar), alias: Harry Caine.