In the most indelible scene of "Broken Embraces" ("Los abrazos rotos"), Pedro Almodovar's latest vivid melodrama, Penelope Cruz plays dress-up.
As an aspiring actress named Lena, she's testing wardrobe for a film. She quickly turns to the camera in one wig after another, each time flashing the megawatt smile of a silver screen goddess. It might be Lena's first movie, but Cruz has gotten the hang of this.
In her fourth film with Almodovar, Cruz gives her most glamorous performance yet — and a fitting one, too. "Broken Embraces" is in many ways a movie about movies. It's full of references to other films (including Almodovar's). Cruz is even done up like Audrey Hepburn.
Transformation, like Lena's rapid shape-shifting, is a theme throughout. Almodovar relishes the metamorphoses actors and people undertake while at the same time mournfully observing this constant flight from self.
At the center of the film is Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), a writer who takes his nom de plume, Harry Caine, after being blinded in a car accident years earlier. He's a successful screenwriter with a manager, Judit Garcia (Blanca Portillo), whose son Diego (Tamar Novas) also assists him.
"I was always tempted by the thought of being someone else," he narrates.
Mateo's past returns, though, when a young filmmaker aggressively approaches him about a script. Dressed in a black leather jacket and sunglasses, the man introduces himself as Ray X. We soon learn that his identity, too, is a concealment; he was previously an awkward teenager named Ernesto Junior.
Ernesto Junior's visit prompts consternation and a long flashback. (There's a great deal of time shifting and story swapping in "Broken Embraces.")
We travel back to Mateo meeting Lena in 1994, when he could still see. His first sight of Lena — in a ravishing close-up — is played like Rita Hayworth's entrance in "Gilda." Mateo immediately falls for her and casts her for his film, a comedy.
Lena is living with an older, wealthy businessman named Ernesto Martel (Jose Louis Gomez), the father of Ernesto Junior. She doesn't love him, but is indebted to him for helping her sick father.
Ernesto, though, is obsessed with Lena. To control her, he finances Mateo's movie and sends Ernesto Junior to document everything Lena does on set. Each night, he watches the footage with a lip reader, soon discovering the budding love between Lena and Mateo.
The trouble that ensues will ultimately lead to the fateful car accident. Along the way are references to Hitchcock's "Notorious," Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" and Roberto Rossellini's "Voyage to Italy" — at least.
Mateo's telling of the tale, though, returns him to himself. Redemption comes from reassembling the film he and Lena created. Any Almodovar fan will immediately recognize it as a take on his own 1988 breakthrough, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."
Sitting at the editing console, Mateo asks whether the film is worth doing, "Or is it crazy?" If this reflects Almodovar's own paranoia, he long ago found a way to get beyond it.
An Almodovar film is unlike anything else: bold, passionate, explosively bright, campy, self-serious, formally constructed. There's not another filmmaker working today (or perhaps ever) who believes so strongly in the extremes of melodrama.
The overcooked drama can grow tiresome, but resistance is typically as futile as trying to fully describe one of Almodovar plots. In his finest films — "Bad Education," "Talk to Her" — the lushness sucks you in and slyly leads you somewhere darker.
"Broken Embraces" weaves Almodovar's spell just as assuredly as those films (thanks partially to the beautiful camera work of Rodrigo Prieto and the sensuous score by Alberto Iglesias), but the payoff is less. It comes a little too tidily and with a little too much self-reference.