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Cannes 2009: Leave Her to Hell ("Abrazos Rotos," Almodóvar)

David Phelps

There’s one great image in Abrazos Rotos, and it’s straight from Godard’s Prenom Carmen: a hand, in silhouette, hovers over a blue, static TV screen. It’s not a great image because it’s pretty. Almodóvar, like a pulp illustrator turned filmmaker, has plenty of pretty images, which he fashions by-the-dots melodramas around to get to: Penelope Cruz primping as a queen for herself in a mirror; Penelope Cruz in red, carried into the night by the man who just shoved her down a staircase; Penelope Cruz, post-coital, coming back to the bedroom to find her old lover looking dead. Of course, any image with Penelope Cruz is going to be pretty, and prettier in Almodóvar, who devotedly adds color and removes clothes—it's thanks to him that Penelope Cruz’s tits are an axiom of the cinema, his great symbols and sources, inexplicably, of man’s fortitude and woman’s devotion that mark the women of his films. What isn’t revealed in the face is revealed in the chest. One look and you know—always the woman’s problem for Almodóvar—that she’ll carry on. And how. Pendebat in aere tellus ponderibus librata suis. To understand desire is not to understand men, as they always are in Almodóvar, as martyrs to women’s love. It’s to see Cruz nude. In Almodóvar, the plot is inevitably pornography, justified only by the tits. But prettiness, in Almodóvar, is as easy as his characters.

Really easy: the pretty segments inserted into the narrative segments in Abrazos Rotos would be just as good in color pencil storyboards, and have nothing to do with the texture or movement, unique to movies, that Almodóvar likes to talk about in interviews. The colors, smooth and shiny, look more like markers than film. Almodóvar keeps his actors composed and poised in shot for a few moments as they make small talk, usually sitting as though in thrones, then lets them continue the story. They’re all manufactured as if Almodóvar held up his paper sketches to the monitor while he shot to make sure his actors were in the same place as when he drew them.

Abrazos Rotos plays as a string of hypothetical stories and images for an actual movie; it is easier to see the idea behind the image, in Almodóvar, than the image itself. While Buñuel resituates The Last Supper in Viridiana, or Bresson resituates the ending of City Lights in the ending of Pickpocket, Almodóvar, like indie bands with psych-rock, reheats his favorite themes, but removes any psychotic element that might end up disturbing audiences (who comes to Bad Education for the rape, and stay for the love). There are at least three main inspirations for Abrazos Rotos. A young, nerd filmmaker seeking to expose his stepmother is a werewolf caricature of Carl Boehm’s Peeping Tom, but notes himself he’s just a stalker, has no desire to murder (and so Almodóvar strips Michael Powell’s film of its main metaphor and meaning to preserve the image). John Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven is the inspiration for the staircase fall, but where the shove in Stahl’s film is a deliberately calculated attempt to reclaim a lover, in Almodóvar it’s just a sudden shove of jealous rage as a husband tries to kill his wife (again, no sympathy for the bloodthirsty). Voyage to Italy, now a perennial date flick, is awesomely reappropriated in a montage with a camera swirling nowhere in particular, and Cat Power singing, and lovers snuggling on the couch watching TV, where Ingrid Bergman stares in a volcano. And a film that can only see life through other films takes up neorealism as its ancestor.

But Almodóvar’s too tasteful for Rossellini’s realism and he’s too tasteful for Sirk’s melodrama—both hurt, follow people who keep themselves from loving. Abrazos Rotos simply uses old screenwriter’s devices to keep lovers from one another. There is no soaring Sirk music as characters dance murderously with nobody to talk to, no eerie Stahl calm as characters think murderously with nobody to talk to, no dead Rossellini calm as characters think suicidally with each other to talk to, and nothing to say. They talk to each other. There’s no blood.

What makes the shot of a hand over a TV screen great, then, is not just that it’s got texture, but that it’s the only moment that justifies and offers some undercurrent to the film’s endless digressions that stack up as storylines and characters: a director, blind and amnesiac after an accident that killed his mistress; the mistress, 15 years ago, looking to be a star; her husband, finding she’s cheated on him, and trying to win her back; the film the director was making with her and never finished. In a single moment, Almodóvar’s rehashed plots—he’s a pulp curator turned filmmaker—converge, as the same story of men trying to reclench dreams that last a second, that they saw, like a movie, and dissolved. For Almodóvar, to lose your sight is to lose your visions. Or at least your grasp on them. Abrazos Rotos, roughly, translates as “Broken Embraces.” But a hand hovering endlessly over TV static is all it takes to really show it.

Above: the hand from Godard's Prénom Carmen (1983).

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