Remember the scene in Stardust Memories when aliens descend on Woody Allen with the message: “We enjoy your films — particularly the early, funny ones. Do mankind a real service. Tell funnier jokes!”
Ditto Pedro Almodóvar.
Once Almodóvar made hilarious send-ups that reflected the new openness in Spain after Franco. His best films made stars of Carmen Maura and Antonio Banderas. His crowning achievement, All About My Mother, won the best foreign-film Oscar in 1999. Then he turned “serious” and Pedro’s gay and rebellious sensibility gave way to dreary middle-class melodramas best appreciated by telenovela aficionados.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a fan from early on. I had high hopes for Broken Embraces. Its opening scene is vintage Almodóvar: Self-centered blind screenwriter-director Harry Caine (Homar) seduces a young woman in his studio apartment. His blindness hasn’t hampered his knack on the casting couch.
Pity the film doesn’t pursue this madcap style; Caine’s assistant soon enters with news that a former producer and rival has died. A flashback reveals that the producer’s secretary and mistress (Cruz) was also Caine’s star and lover. A noir-inspired hodge-podge ensues.
Almodóvar also squanders the opportunity to cast Cruz as a classic femme fatale, preferring to use his “muse” as a Barbie doll he dresses up as Audrey Hepburn one minute and Marilyn Monroe the next.
A wiseacre once said that homage in film is just license to cover up a lack of originality. Granted, Almodóvar has used film clips (Duel in the Sun in Matador) effectively; but in Embraces he restages innumerable classic film clips and references (including his own Women on a Verge) that even a GPS guide to Forest Lawn cemetery couldn’t track. The film and its characters become celluloid extras, and it is soon apparent how distant Pedro’s grandiose homage falls from the great films he wishes to celebrate.
It is rare when two feature films about the fascinating subject of moviemaking are in theaters (Embraces and Nine — both feature Cruz), but unfortunately for discriminating moviegoers, they fail to strip away the phony tinsel or find the tinsel underneath.
So what’s a hardcore art-film junkie to do?
Rent the original films that inspired these “remakes.”
Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 was the basis for the musical Nine. The superb Marcello Mastroianni portrays a celebrated director running on empty.
Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt is a masterpiece. Using a pop-art, widescreen canvas, it focuses on an amour fou triangle between a screenwriter (Michel Piccoli), a producer (Jack Palance), and a secretary/actress (Brigitte Bardot) blatantly echoed in Embraces — as are a fatal accident in a red sports car and a Rossellini film clip. The legendary Fritz Lang appears as the director of the brilliant film within the film.
No need for flat remakes: Both 8 1/2 and Contempt remain as fresh and original today as when they were released in 1963 — nearly half a century ago. — Gregg Barrios