Who's In It: Penelope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Blanca Portillo, Ruben Ochandiano
The Basics: A film director (Homar), blinded in a car accident over a decade ago, makes his life as a screenwriter and has a comfortable, peaceful existence, but only if no one asks him any difficult questions about the past. Because that car accident came about thanks to an affair with Penelope Cruz, an actress and former part-time prostitute who was sort of already the mistress of a powerful--and, it turns out, just a touch jealous--businessman. No wonder the blind writer wants to live in a distraction-filled state of emotional denial; when Pedro Almodovar scripts your existence as a sophisticated, nonstop, high-pitched, romantic melodrama, you eventually want the next chunk of your life to resemble a perpetual chill-out room.
What's The Deal: There are two stories going on here. The first is the one about the intense, impossible affair. But that's just kind of a framework for the other story, the one about the power of art and how it can shape your feelings, your actions, your whole life. Is it impossible and damaging to live your days as though you were in a movie yourself (After Cruz takes a tumble down some stairs, Homar says, "That only happens in films.") or can art save you? It's kind of a rarefied thing to ask someone if they're wondering how they're going to make their rent, but still, you occasionally need movies to come along that are willing to pose the question.
Helps If You've Seen: Vertigo, All That Heaven Allows (or any other Douglas Sirk movie) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Because Almodovar is massaging all of that stuff (and with his own Women on the Verge, he's directly quoting it) to make his point about how movies can create reality just by being absorbed into your consciousness.
Best/Worst People In The Movie: Almodovar's working relationship with Penelope Cruz is like a kinder, more collaborative Alfred Hitchcock/Grace Kelly/Kim Novak triangle. She's his go-to woman now and he dresses her up in all of his favorite outfits, desires and obsessions and anxieties. Sometimes that works to really intense emotional effect, like in Volver, but here it feels darker and more distant, especially with the nonstop physical abuse her character erdures. It luxuriates in glamourous images of broken bone x-rays, or of Cruz being whisked off in the back of sleek black cars, her nose bloodied and thighs bruised. Meanwhile, Ruben Ochandiano, who plays the powerful businessman's son, is a gay character who spends the whole movie trying to create a sense of menace but comes off more like a wacky Kids in the Hall character.
If For No Other Reason, See It For: Almodovar's trademark color-saturated visuals, Cruz's inability to look bad no matter what she does, and the cameo by longtime Almodovar lady Rossy de Palma, who has one of the great noses of film history. If she's new to you, you'll still know her when you see her.