A quick note on Avatar and Broken Embraces — January 3, 2010

A quick note on Avatar and Broken Embraces

…They’re more similar than you might think.

First of all, cards on the table: they’re both beautiful films, and I strongly recommend going to both.

What unifies them is that you don’t really go for the plot. You go for the astonishing visuals. In the case of [film: Broken Embraces], you also go because the cinematography has a rhythm that lulls you into a trance-like state.

Years ago, David Thomson — author of the quirky, curmudgeonly, contrarian, authoritative [book: Biographical Dictionary of Film] — said on some NPR show (probably Terry Gross) that it doesn’t even make sense to call a film “melodramatic”. Film is the medium that allows you to dissolve from a shot of a tear running down a woman’s face, says Thomson, into a shot of a dagger. The medium that allows this has long since run past the “melodrama” line. Film is melodramatic *at its heart*.

Pedro Almodóvar has taken this to heart. At one point in [film: Broken Embraces], a single tear runs down the side of a tomato; the tomato and the tear fill up the entire screen. Like all Almodóvar films, the colors are all intensely saturated, and every object in every frame stands starkly out from everything behind it. Perhaps 90% of the shots in [film: Broken Embraces] deserve to be framed and hung on the wall. (This, by the way, is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, with a lot of films. [film: Rear Window] would get first dibs on my wall.)

And then there’s Penélope Cruz. [film: Broken Embraces] is Pedro Almodóvar’s love song sung directly to Cruz. She fills nearly every frame of the movie. She is luxurious. If you’re not into Penélope Cruz … well, first of all, what’s wrong with you? But secondly, you’ll probably find [film: Broken Embraces] a bit much. In many ways it reminds me of portraits I saw in the National Gallery: beautiful women looking coquettishly at the painter, who either had already slept with his subject or dreamt of doing so and who splashed his desire on the canvas.

You don’t watch [film: Broken Embraces] for the story. You watch it because its director exploits the medium for all it’s worth.

You also don’t see [film: Avatar] for the story, though actually there’s more there than I would have guessed. In fact it’s a rather moving, heartbreaking story; I was shocked. It’s also a thinly disguised attack on U.S. military policy in Vietnam (heavily armored military centered around helicopters, destroying the indigenous people within their dense jungle home), or on the U.S.’s massacre of American Indians in the 19th century.

In fact, there are two parts to [film: Avatar]: a live-action part in the human world, and an animated one in the alien civilization’s world. I hope I speak for most of the movie’s viewers when I say that the animated world is much the more compelling. I think James Cameron realizes this, because most of our time is spent in the alien world. It is beautiful, lush, and absorbing: it is its own world, with its own language. [film: Avatar] is the reason you go see movies on the big screen, with surround sound. [film: Broken Embraces] could be viewed with the sound off, but you still need the big screen; you need to get lost in the world of the film, which is something only the theatre can buy you.

The trailer for [film: Broken Embraces] suggested to me that its score would be another haunting Alberto Iglesias construction, like that for [film: Talk To Her] (which is one of my few favorite films). The trailer turned out to be deceptive; I can’t actually recall any part of the soundtrack from the film itself, whereas [film: Talk To Her] featured the immortal “Raquel” and “Cucurrucucu Paloma”, performed by Caetano Veloso.

These are two entirely different films, but I strongly encourage you to see both. They are examples of filmmakers at the top of their games.