Annie Bennett from the Observer, met with the director of Broken Embraces, Pedro Almodóvar to talk about his new film, starring Penélope Cruz, which was filmed on location in Lanzarote and Madrid and premieres in the UK this week. Annie also flew to Lanzarote to follow in the footsteps of Pedro, and discover why a photograph he had taken 10 years ago at El Golfo, had captured his imagination to create this film.
A decade ago, film-maker Pedro Almodóvar took a photograph of El Golfo beach in Lanzarote. When he got the pictures developed, he could just make out two tiny figures standing on the sand. Intrigued, he had the shot enlarged, and revealed a couple locked in a tight embrace, lost in the landscape. The Secret of El Golfo, niggled away at him for years, eventually inspiring the story that would become Broken Embraces, his latest film, on general release here from 28 August. Although most of the action takes place in Madrid, the scenes shot in Lanzarote are crucial to the plot and set the tone for the whole film.
In Broken Embraces, the two main characters, Lena and Mateo, played by Penélope Cruz and Lluís Homar, stand on the same spot. He takes a photograph and Lena embraces him from behind, sheltering from the wind. I went to Lanzarote and stood there too.
Striated cliffs in shades of burgundy, russet and ochre frame a beach where wild waves crash on to the shore, with what looks like a slick of green paint splashed across the charcoal sand. It is the most extraordinary sight, and it is hardly surprising that Almodóvar didn't notice the couple.
"It was like in Antonioni's movie Blow Up, when David Hemmings takes the picture in the park and doesn't see the body by the bushes until he develops the film in his darkroom," said the director when I met him later in Madrid. "The camera lens sees more than the naked eye."
The beach is actually a volcanic crater eroded by the sea, and the green stain is a lagoon, linked to the ocean by lava tubes hidden under the sand. The colour comes from the algae that flourish in a peculiar ecosystem created by the high salt content of the water and the composition of the rock. If you sift through the stones glinting in the sunlight on the beach, you might find crystals of olivine, the green mineral used as a gemstone. But you have to be patient and look very carefully: like the embracing couple, they are not visible at first glance.
"I'd gone to Lanzarote shortly after my mother died," said Almodóvar, "and the colours of the island seemed to reflect how I was feeling. I found it somehow soothing - not just the blackness, more the soft tones of red, green and brown."
I drove away from El Golfo along a road flanked by huge volcanic boulders, and turned north into La Geria, the wine-producing valley that Almodóvar filmed from the air as the main characters drove across it in their red hatchback.
The slate-grey, gently undulating terrain is scored with thousands of shallow circular hollows, each housing a single green vine protected by a semicircle of basalt rocks. I got out of the car and gazed at the perfect pattern, which looked like an immense art installation. I half expected to see the land artist Richard Long trudging towards me.
"I was knocked out by La Geria when I first saw it and knew that I would use it in a film one day," Almodóvar told me. That was in 1985, when he went to Lanzarote to have a rest before shooting The Law of Desire. Back then, he stayed in a bungalow on Famara beach in the north-west of the island, which is where I headed next, as it is also a location in Broken Embraces.
In the film, Lena and Mateo stay, as Almodóvar did, in a bungalow in holiday village Bungalows Playa Famara. There are scenes in the reception area. When I walked in, I was a bit surprised to see that the receptionist was the person who appears in the film. "Pedro asked me to play myself," said Lyng Dyrup, originally from Denmark, who turned out to be the manager of the complex. "It was hardly a stretch, particularly as I've been here for more than 20 years."
Lyng told me that they had filmed in bungalow number two, in the row nearest the beach. I let myself into the semicircular building and found myself in the living room where one of the most poignant scenes takes place, with the couple on the sofa, watching television.
"This is where the title, Broken Embraces, comes from," Almodóvar told me. "They are watching Rossellini's film Voyage to Italy, in which archaeologists find the entwined skeletons of a couple buried by lava, together for ever. Lena cuddles up to Mateo, and he sets the camera and takes a photo of them, unaware that their bliss will soon be shattered - and the photo torn to shreds."
Back in reception, I asked Lyng what she thought of the film. "You need to see it more than once, because it has so many layers," she replied. "It's really more like a book than a film - a book you can't put down, because you are totally absorbed by the story and the characters." Earlier in the film, Lena and Mateo sit on the sand, framed by black rocks that shield them, like the vines, from the wind and the outside world. "Famara is a place of refuge, which is a key concept in the film," said Almodóvar.
"Broken Embraces is a total homage to Manrique," Almodóvar told me. "I met him on that first trip back in the 80s, and he took me all over the island and showed me his Lanzarote."
Manrique's home at the time, Taro de Tahiche, is built into the boulders in a lava field. He was so amazed to spot a fig tree growing up from the blackness that he decided to build a house around it. Now a foundation dedicated to his life and work, its ground floor is an exhibition space with works by his renowned contemporaries, including Tàpies, Millares, Picasso and Saura, but it is the view framed by the huge windows that draws the eye. Basalt steps lead down to a turquoise pool and five lava bubbles linked by passages in the volcanic rock. It looks more like a groovy nightclub than a home. "Oh yes, I went to some pretty wild parties there," remembered Almodóvar, laughing.
The above are excerpts from Annie’s article published today, you can read the full version here, which includes more information about Lanzarote and her accommodation.