‘I do find that my stories are becoming increasingly dark, increasingly sombre,’ Pedro Almodóvar agrees during a visit to London soon after the premiere of his latest film, Broken Embraces, at Cannes Film Festival. A small, stocky man, he’s wearing new trainers, stylish jeans and a bright green zip-up tracksuit top. It’s the sort of outfit that would look ridiculous on most 59-year-olds, but it perfectly suits this flamboyant, energetic artist.
Broken Embraces is the story of blind Spanish filmmaker Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), who revisits a tragic episode in his past when a stranger turns up on his doorstep in Madrid wanting to collaborate with him on a new film. We head back to 1992 and learn how a young woman – secretary and sometime call-girl called Lena (Penélope Cruz) – came to move in with her overbearing millionaire boss, Ernesto Martel. Two years later she stars in a film financed by Martel and directed by Caine, who is then known as Mateo Blanco and is not yet blind. Lena’s jealous husband orders his son to video his wife’s every move while filming, which he then watches every night with a lip-reader at his side to interpret the dialogue. The mood is oppressive and sometimes maudlin.
‘My stories today offer me less room for humour,’ says Almodóvar. ‘So I probably need to start thinking of stories that I can write as comedies. When I do, I hope I’ll be as gifted for comedy as I have been up to now.’
As we talk, he remembers that the couple of stories he’s been writing recently are also ‘very black’ in tone. His voice betrays an inner shrug: must try harder. ‘I find that I have two nearly opposing trends,’ he continues. ‘On the one hand there’s this gravity, this seriousness. And on the other there’s this absurd comedy. Those are the two versions of me of which I’m now much more conscious. I feel more than ever that I need to develop both at the same time. I didn’t need it two or three years ago. Now is the moment. I need to find a way. I don’t know how. Maybe the best way is either to make a straight comedy or a straight drama, and that’s it.’
It’s hard to imagine Almodóvar making such a simple choice. He’s known for telling stories full of wonderful contrivances with an effortlessness that allows him to mix kitsch with tragedy, melodrama with realism. But this new film continues the more reflective mood of his last three films, Talk to Her, Bad Education and Volver, though it lacks the playful edge that made the latter the warmest of tragedies.
Broken Embraces may be Almodóvar’s most cerebral film. But will it suit his many loyal fans? ‘This movie is really good to see twice,’ he says. ‘It’s not a very commercially friendly thing to say. It’s not a good marketing line: you have to see this movie twice!’ [Laughs] ‘But it’s true that, for me, it’s complex in the best sense. It’s not a movie that goes in one direction. Also, there are a lot of important themes. It’s a great love story. It’s also a great story about cinema, about the fragility of cinema if someone steps in between the author and the film. It’s about parents, children and guilt. It’s also a declaration of love for my profession.’
He talks as if he’s at a turning point in his life as a filmmaker.
‘I feel the last few films, the films I’ve made this century, have opened me up to a second career,’ he reflects. ‘I feel that I’m starting a second stage in my filmmaking. I’m exploring new fields, subjects and themes that will take me further into new territory.’
Broken Embraces is showing at DIFF.