I finally got my wish the other day and saw Los abrazos rotos. While it’s not the perfect success of Almodóvar’s last film with Penélope Cruz—the Cannes darling Volver—, it delighted this viewer just as everything else produced by the Spanish director has.
Almodóvar draws inspiration from Hitchcock with the film. Los abrazos rotos is a stylish thriller with a story that unravels as the viewer travels back and forth in time. We start in the present with a blind Spanish screenwriter named “Harry Caine,” who is cared for meticulously by his agent Judit and her son Diego. But a visit from the son of an old business associate of Caine’s sends the film tumbling back into the sordid events of the 1990s. Caine was still Mateo Blanco then, an up-and-coming film director working on Chicas y maletas (Women and Suitcases), which happens to be remarkably similar to Almodóvar’s own film Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown)—a movie everyone should see. In fact, the same set is used for Chicas y maletas as Almodóvar used in Mujeres.
Blanco’s film consumes him, particularly because of its star Lena Rivas (Cruz). On film, she’s a plucky Audrey Hepburn look-a-like. In real life, she’s a woman trapped by the repercussions of her difficult decisions in life. Rivas is the mistress of Ernesto Martel, a businessman who produces Blanco’s movie and who’s son shows up at Harry Caine’s apartment years later. Blanco is infatuated with Rivas. And the tensions between Blanco and Martel, a jealous and controlling lover, quickly escalate and are heightened by the presence of Martel’s son, a burgeoning director himself who is filming a documentary about the making of Chicas y maletas. Martel Jr.’s raw footage is viewed daily by the paranoid and manipulative Martel Sr., who goes as far as to hire a lipreader to decipher the conversations between Rivas and Blanco that happen behind the camera.
How does Blanco go blind? Why does he call himself Harry Caine? What becomes of Rivas? Why does Junior come calling on Caine/Blanco years later? Well, you’re just going to have to watch the film and follow the circuitous route to those answers yourself.