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While making a light comedy, a director and his female star engage in a passionate love affair that prompts emotional fireworks, jealousy and betrayal, not only for them but also for those close to the pair in "Broken Embraces."

These dual movies — the on-set comedy and the off-set melodrama — allow the prolific and always engaging writer-director Pedro Almodovar to speculate on cinema itself, its imagery, iconic touchstones and its capacity for clandestine observation.

While the movie is engrossing, and the movie references and subplots involving the cinema world enrich his story, this is a pretty minor work from the filmmaker. It feels like more of an exercise in plotting and movie nostalgia than a story about real people.

By now, though, Almodovar is a brand name, and his muse, Penelope Cruz, certainly adds potent star power, so the film should perform well in specialty venues when Sony Pictures Classics releases it stateside Nov. 20.

The opening credits are superimposed on a video image taken surreptitiously on the set of the stand-ins and then Cruz and co-star Lluis Homar. This nicely sets up the notion of the camera as the world's greatest spy: For in movies, we the audience are always, in a sense, watching people's most intimate situations and seeing things the characters would not have us see.

The story centers on a man with two names who answers only to one. A car accident 14 years earlier robbed film director Mateo Blanco (Homar) of his eyesight and his great love, Lena (Cruz). Once he recovered, he declared Blanco dead and adapted the pseudonym Harry Caine, which he puts on the scripts he now writes with the aid of Diego (Blanca Portillo), the son of his former production manager Judit (Tamar Novas).

One night, while recovering from an accidental drug overdose, Diego asks Harry to tell the story of what happened 14 years ago. Surprisingly, Harry does.

The minute Harry — no, Mateo then — and Lena see each other, they fall in love. But she is the kept woman of Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), a wealthy broker. Nonetheless, Mateo casts her in his comedy. Lena has always wanted to be an actress, and as a former escort and now a mistress, acting comes naturally to her.

Martel signs as the film's producer in a vain attempt to maintain control over his lover. He even plants his son (Ruben Ochandiano) on the set, ostensibly to shoot a "making of" video as a means to keep an eye on Lena.

Movie references begin to pile up. Mateo's comedy "Girls and Suitcases" is a reworking of Almodovar's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." Noir elements, especially staircases that can have treacherous consequences, foreshadow the coming tragedy.

For all of this window dressing, "Embraces" remains a 1950s-style Douglas Sirk melodrama with breathless revelations in the final reel. Cruz and Homar play their parts with flair, though. Cruz, given an Audrey Hepburn hairdo in the movie within the movie, is glamorous, ambitious and utterly in love with her new man. Homar is incautious as Mateo but wry and ironic as Harry, a man devoted to his pleasures and writing but deliberately cut off from his previous self.

The close-ups of Cruz in various hairstyles and wigs are a type of artwork all by themselves. (partialdiff)
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