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Almodovar tries to seduce in 'Embraces'

There's a startling moment in "Up in the Air" when Vera Farmiga suddenly shows up naked in a hotel with co-star George Clooney.

There's a startling moment in "Up in the Air" when Vera Farmiga suddenly shows up naked in a hotel with co-star George Clooney.

Shocking because in its adult movies, Hollywood has become strangely squeamish about sex. That's never been a problem for Pedro Almodovar, who reminds us early on in "Broken Embraces" why his movies have become a refuge for grown-ups seeking sexual candor.

In the first scene, a charming blind man (Lluis Homar) thanks a pretty blonde for escorting him back to his apartment. They chat, he asks to explore the contours of her face so that he might picture her in his mind's eye, and within moments he's exploring all sorts of contours.

Turns out he's a movie director, Harry Caine, with a history of seducing women, as we see in the disapproving face of his manager/producer/housekeeper (Tamar Novas) when she walks in on them.

Caine's history as a womanizer, we soon learn, has had melodramatic consequences, as befits a movie that functions as an homage to moviemaking in general and 1940s melodrama in particular (the Hitchcock string section isn't the only reference to "Vertigo").

There are veiled references to an accident that caused Harry's blindness, something that occurred on the set of a disastrous movie he made some 15 years ago. We learn the details (delivered in flashback) as Harry slowly doles them out to his writing assistant (Blanca Portillo), a confession prompted by a visit from a blackmailing documentary filmmaker who has behind-the-scenes footage of the notorious production.

Knowing Harry and knowing Almodovar, we're not surprised that the source of the intrigue is a woman, and that the woman is Penélope Cruz. She plays Lena, the young and gorgeous wife of a rich and powerful and very jealous older man (Jose Luis Gómez). He is very possessive, she is very bored, and when Caine spots her one day and offers her a chance to screen-test, she accepts, and you can probably see where that goes.

How we get there, though, is half the fun. Almodovar juggles complicated shifts in chronology and perspective. Gómez's character, for instance, commissions both the movie and the making-of documentary, and his suspicions grow as he views the footage of both.

Almodovar clearly enjoys all of this gamesmanship, but there are times when we feel he's getting more out of it that are we. "Broken Embraces" never scales the breathless heights of the movies it imitates - it's not that sincere - and its postmodern cleverness keeps us at a distance from his characters.