"Write about what you know" is usually good advice, and some of the best movies turn the cameras around to consider the passions and contradictions of show business. Films about filmmaking can be as diverse as Singin' in the Rain's show-stopping musical numbers, The Player's biting satire, and 8 ?'s caustic self-portrait. The best take an insider's point of view and look deep enough to find the universal.
Even master screen artists, however, can mistake their pet obsessions for the stuff of great drama. Two new films about filmmaking put plenty of talent on display – and share Penélope Cruz at her most tempestuously attractive – without fully engaging their audiences. Pedro Almodóvar's Spanish melodrama Broken Embraces turns out to be a little too personal, while Rob Marshall's musical head-trip Nine may not be personal enough.
Nine comes full circle upon its arrival in movie houses. The material began as Fellini's semi-autobiographical 1963 film 8 ? about a burned-out director and his female fixations. It inspired a 1982 Tony-winning musical, which Chicago's Oscar-winning director has now adapted for the big screen. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido Contini, a celebrated, creatively blocked maestro who flees from his ninth and latest production to hide out at a lavish coastal spa. Instead of working, he muses on the women in his life, including his long-suffering wife (Marion Cotillard), his saucy mistress (Cruz), his wardrobe designer/mentor (Judi Dench) and his leading lady/muse (Nicole Kidman).
Each Oscar-caliber actress gets at least one burlesque-style musical number, although the songs blur together and the choreography amounts to little more than suggestive poses and come-hither attitude. Cotillard offers the most poignant moments, including a striptease that conveys her feelings of betrayal at Guido's infidelities. As a prostitute from Guido's youth, the Black-Eyed Peas' Fergie performs the most memorable number, the roof-rattling, tambourine-smacking "Be Italian." It's ironic, though, that Nine repeatedly makes such a point of Italian authenticity when Sophia Lauren, as Guido's mother, is the only Italian in the principal cast.
The cast's international flavor wouldn't matter if Nine reached a stronger conclusion, but it never generates much interest in a man-whore's identity crisis and offers few insights into women or the creative process. Fellini's original film demonstrated how memory, fantasy, dream and experience interplay to create a unique artistic sensibility. Nevertheless, Day-Lewis gives a surprisingly likeable, self-effacing performance, especially in Guido's press conferences. Plus, you can have worse times than watching some of cinema's great beauties gyrate in their underwear. It's like an assembly line of glamour.
Nine remains in the shadow of a major filmmaker, but Almodóvar's the real deal – a cinematic visionary whose fascination with style and sexuality match Fellini's. In Broken Embraces, Almodóvar uses film production as a backdrop for a decades-spanning tale of lust, guilt and other compulsions. Former filmmaker Mateo Blanco (the rock-solid Lluís Homar) writes film scripts under the name Harry Caine after a tragic accident cost him his eyesight. He's no victim, however, but a productive screenwriter who casually seduces a young woman in Embraces' opening scene.
An obituary and a visit from a squirrelly stranger called Ray X inspire Mateo/Harry to flashback his life leading up to his blindness, when he began making a film starring Lena (Cruz), the mistress of a ruthless financier (José Luis Gómez). When Mateo gives Lena screen tests involving a series of wigs and accessories, Almodóvar shows how cameras can turn ordinary women into iconic figures. Nine only describes the influence of a muse, but Broken Embraces reveals it.
When Mateo and Lena begin an illicit affair, the cuckolded husband enlists a lip-reader to watch the dailies of an on-set documentary to spy on his wife. Meanwhile, in a touch worthy of a post-modern house of mirrors, Mateo's film-within-the-film looks very much like Almodóvar's campy international breakthrough Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Rather than go for laughs, Broken Embraces emulates the suspense, precision and voyeuristic themes of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.
Almodóvar frequently relies on the incredulous twists of torrid melodrama, and Broken Embraces is no exception. The references to Women on the Verge suggest he's using Mateo to play out some kind of private worst-case scenario as a man, a lover and an artist. Most viewers will find Broken Embraces to be moving, even though it feels designed for an audience of one.