In fact, he’s obsessed with her. She, being a woman of the world, understands that he’ll do anything to have her, so now she needs to decide what, exactly, she wants.
Her father is very ill, and his mother is desperate for the money to care for him properly. That’s reason enough to take up with the elderly gentleman, not really for love, but Lena figures she’s comfortable enough, and even resists his urging to divorce his wife to marry her. She senses that this way, she maintains control.
Her intuition proves to be prescient. A chance encounter leads to a golden opportunity: to audition for a part in a film, something she’s always wanted to do. He’s reluctant to allow it, fearing, justifiably, that would unnecessarily risk an alienation of her affection. It’s worse than that. She falls in love. And now, being with her old benefactor is perfectly odious to her, even making her physically ill. But she continues to act interested because he’s made himself the producer of the film, and so possesses artistic control. So now we have the proper tension created, because everyone wants something from someone else, nobody’s quite able to deliver what anybody else wants, and so everybody’s miserable.
Yes, Director Pedro Almodovar is still completely enamored with the persona of Penelope Cruz. He’s always willing to experiment with his films, and here, we have a complicated movie-within-a-movie that resides with a story told partly in the present and partly in retrospect, by characters whose motivations are not always what they appear to be. There are some slow moments despite the screenplay’s intricacy, Almodovar is perfectly content in low-key, domestic settings — talking around the breakfast table, contented lovers entwined on the couch watching an old movie, announcing plot advances while dicing vegetables, and lovemaking under the sheets, with no audible endearments save a soft duet of grunting and moaning.
Yes, it’s a risk, asking Penelope Cruz to pretend to act badly, the primary risk being that our suspension of disbelief is interrupted in the middle of all the self-conscious subterfuge. Nevertheless, there are some moments that fascinate, and Almodovar has assembled a veteran, competent cast to deliver his continuing valentine to a beautiful starlet, now not so young, but it’s a testament to her impact that we are still rooting for her, even when she’s left our sight. Now that’s screen presence.
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor of Grace Church, Greenville, Texas.