Looking back at movies over the past decade I've come to the conclusion that film noir is no longer an American art form. Noir has been taken over. Hollywood noirs have become shallow glittery epics filled with wet city streets and fedoras. Comic book noir.
The best film noir of the last few years aren't American crime films... they were movies like
Revanche, the Postman Always Rings Twice remake Jerichow, and Klopka – Guy Savage's Noir of the Week last week.
The film I want to feature this week is Pedro Almodóvar's Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos). Almodóvar has been making movies in Spain for years and is no stranger to modern film noir. This one (unlike the darker Revanche and Jerichow and some of Almodóvar's other “noir” including Bad Education) has a light touch and humor too. Almodóvar uses muted colors mixed with bright red making it feel bold. The film – although in color – feels like noir without seeming like a tribute. That's a trick most modern American film makers apparently can't do. I've also noticed that foreign films have subplots concerning rampant unemployment, heartless heath-care coverage and ruthless bankers pretending to be “pillars of society” in their films while American movies steer wide of these subjects that are now a part of our daily lives. American movies are an escape from our problems while foreign noir seems to meditate on the issues of today.
More than anything, however, Broken Embraces is a pleasure to watch. It constantly references film noir, classic films and crime thrillers. This movie is a blast for film nuts. Clearly Almodóvar not only loves making movies he loves watching them.
There are many scenes in Broken Embraces that are reminiscent of other thrillers: Movie fans will notice when the film director (played by Lluís Homar) first meets Lena (Penélope Cruz) she turns and smiles. She looks stunning... her hair is full, dark and wavy. Her smile lights up the room... just like Rita Hayworth's entrance in Gilda (there's a bit of a comic payoff there too featuring a pest with a bowl haircut.) Then there's a squared staircase that looks just like the one in Elevator to the Gallows. Lena starts the movie as a secretary moonlighting as an “escort”. She uses the name Séverine which is clearly a nod to another film “lady of the evening” – Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour. The director in the film is named Harry Caine. Harry Lime and Citizen Kane perhaps? When Lena is pushed down a staircase a character quips later, “that only happens in movies!” which is exactly what I thought when I saw the scene. There are too many of these references to mention and part of the fun is trying to catch them all.
This is a movie about making a movie so there's lots of film talk too. When the director – now a blind writer – has his screenwriter pupil put a DVD on he goes through his collection looking for Elevator to the Gallows. Just reading off the titles on the shelf is interesting
Even a blind guy knows that the Jules Dassin and Fritz Lang Film Noir should not be filed with French New Wave!
Two American blockbusters this summer also referenced classic movies. The best part of the ultimately boring Public Enemies is when Dillinger (Johnny Depp) – wide eyed - watches Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama. Quentin Tarantino nearly gives his audience a film lecture about The White Hell of Pitz Palu in Inglourious Basterds. I love all the hints and mentions of other films in Basterds. It's the only film I can think of that has more “movie” moments than Broken Embraces.
Then there's another 2009 Spain-based thriller, Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control. About half way through a femme-fatale looking character is talking to the silent killer about the coffee switching in Hitchcock's Notorious and then goes onto say how Orson Welles' Lady From Shanghai is a mess of a story but great to look at. My first thought was, “You could say the same for this film... but I'd rather be watching Lady From Shanghai.” You never think that way watching Broken Embraces. The twisty story – spaced out over 15 years via flashbacks and forwards – is mysterious and interesting from beginning to end.
Broken Embraces holds you with its story and look but what really sets it apart from other “foreign” films” is a movie star. Penélope Cruz is fantastic. The more I see of her the more impressed I am by her. Almodóvar has a lot of fun shooting her in different wigs and even shows off her Audrey Hepburn neck in the film-within-the-film. At one point in Broken Embraces she has an all-day sex romp with her elderly billionaire boyfriend. At the end he's lying on the bed looking like he just died. Cruz reacts by looking relieved and lights up a smoke. When he pops up alive Cruz shows surprise and disappointment in the same moment. Then she goes to the bathroom and puts on makeup and returns to bed with the man who owns her. Cruz is an actress playing an actress putting on a role for her sugar daddy. It's something to watch. An added bonus is she's absolutely beautiful to look at.
Most casual film goers will probably pass over Broken Embraces. It's probably too much of an art film for some – plus it has subtitles which is a deal breaker right there. But it's really not an art film. It's a smart, solid, and sometimes funny thriller. Some of the humor may be lost in translation (“I never knew I could be so emotional making gazpacho!” is probably a hilarious line in Spain.) but most of the jokes do translate well.
“I want to hear Jeanne Moreau.” says Harry Caine at one point. I'd settle for seeing Penélope Cruz in one of the best films of 2009.