Los abrazos rotos (Almodóvar, 2009) can’t heal Pedro Alamodóvar’s blindness toward the contemporary world so it heals its main character’s lack of family. A story telling movie thinly disguised as what used to be called “modern cinema” or, worse, “art film,”, Los abrazos rotos presents isolated auteur Mateo (Lluís Homar), who signs his screenplays and fiction “Harry Caine” but directs movies under his own name. The nom de plume characterizes Mateo as an idiot too dumb to feel out stripped by his own pseudonym, which might as well be “Orson Welles” (Welles’ character in The Third Man, (Reed, 1949), Harry Lime, plus Charles Foster Kane from and obscure Welles movie about a newspaper man). Mateo goes blind and looses the actress he loves (Penélope Cruz) in a car crash. After the accident , the actress’s film financier husband releases a deliberately awful version of the film they were making together as revenge for the affair. Mateo abandons movie making and lives as Harry. Los abrazos rotos can finally end when he starts using the name Mateo again, and, with his producer (Blanca Portillo) and her son (Tamar Novas), edits the Director’s Cut® of the film he had been working on.
Redolent with the formaldehyde stench of faux creativity, Los abrazos rotos suffers from the same zombie infection Woody Allen® incurred in the 1980s. Over the course of those youthful years, Allen seemed to be trying to carry on Ingmar Bergman’s project by applying certain of the Swede’s formal inventions to life on the content of Upper East Side life. Naturally, in repeating the form, Allen emptied it out, and his films of the period reach heights of pedanticism unparalleled in cinema. Bergman’s image forms looked stupid in Allen’s movies because by the time Allen recycled them they had already failed to destroy the very same bourgeois misery Allen used them to portray. Hannah And Her Sisters (Allen, 1986) isn’t just domestic, it’s domesticated. Plodding along similar canonical paths, Almodóvar thoughtlessly reproduces a variety of film styles from the modern and post-modern cinema, neutralizing their critiques of life as we know it by putting them to work in a tale of family healing.
In certain scenes, often involving Penélope Cruz, Almoadóvar and his crew reproduce the atmosphere of 1950s Hitchock with the ease of masters. Yet, in Hitchcock, that atmosphere forced the viewer to think through a world of criminals, and while in Los abrazos rotos, it merely indicates the imbalance of a life without family.
Predictably, the Hitchock scenes blend easily with those of Mateo’s film productions, shot in the style of David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive (2001). Lynch heavily modified certain ticks of Hitchock’s tics to shoot that movie’s movie within a movie. Lynch at least thought a little more carefully about how to develop rather than reproduce Hitchcock’s middle period style. What’s more, despite Lynch’s idiotic mysticism and juvenile self-presentation as an “artist,” he is honest enough to locate evil in the film industry itself, where as Almodóvar’s cuckolded financier, who seems related to Lynch’s business men, is just a bad guy. He doesn’t seem to be a film professional, just a financier who happens to be investing in a film because it stars his wife, Almodóvar’s mindless love of cinema prevented him from seeing that cinema’s problems are structural, rather than imposed from the outside. The film blames the financier for every flaw in Mateo’s production process, from preempting rehearsals so he can take Lena away for a weekend, to having his son (Rubén Ochandiano) spy on Mateo and his wife under the pretext of making a video documentary of the production.
Los abrazos rotos’s most insulting moments of stylistic mimicry are the tropes from French and Italian “art films” of the 1950s and 60s. Using a common technique from such movies, near the beginning of the film Almodóvar has Mateo tell a tale that becomes the seed for the story of Los abrazos rotos. Mateo gives a soliloquy in long take and short focus, narrating the fable of a man who reunites with a son he has never acknowledged. That fable sets the pattern for the whole film. In the end Mateo can finish the movie he was making before the accident thanks to a family that had always been there, but which he could not acknowledge.
Since the producer’s son must often shoot Mateo and the actress talking from too far away to capture the sound, the producer has a lip reader translate for him when he watches the tapes, a clumsy borrowing from Le Mepris (Gorard, 1964), the mise-en-scene of which also appears in some of the shots of Mateo’s film production.
Inside this stupidity, one finds Almodóvar’s almost touching attempt to imagine an adequate father to a gay son. Mateo’s producer’s son, whom he may have fathered without knowing it, is gay, as is the financier’s son. Naturally, Mateo becomes the loving father and the producer is harsh and rejecting. The young videographer even proposes a film about a closeted father who rejects his gay son who in turn grows up to be just like daddy. The importance of this social problem is unquestionable. However, Los abrazos rotos fails to take it up because the film takes fatherhood as an assumption rather than a question.
Los abrazos rotos also believes that happiness is the mommy-, daddy -and -me family and that the goal of life is to heal, which is precisely why it’s use of forms from “modern cinema” insults and assaults the viewer with the blunt weapon of stupidity. In a specific historical period, “art films” had the virtue of questioning the family and even sometimes dared to show how that institution had become one of the factors rendering everyday life intolerable. When Ingrird Bergman cries in the clip of Stromboli ( Rossellini, 1950) that Mateo and the producer’s son watch on DVD, she is not crying so that she can be reintegrated into a family. In Los abrazos rotos, the family that was always already there for Mateo enables him to reclaim his true name, the one that psychoanalysts used to call “the name of the father.” Even worse: finding his real family allows Mateo to go back to making the same films in the same way, on film stock and edited on a flatbed. Near the end comes the very worst, most regressive image, a reel of film spinning on an editing table, shot as if it were the section of the redwood tree of time in Veirtigo (Hitchcock, 1958) dissolving into Mateo, his producer and their son watching the film they are making together.