Almodóvar's film opens in the present day with a onetime director, Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar), having assumed a new career (writer of thrillers) and a new name (Harry Caine, as in "hurricane").
When Mateo/Harry learns of the death of the industrialist Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), the news triggers a flashback to the 1990s that introduces the character of Lena (Cruz), a hardworking secretary whose father has emphysema.
The malleable Lena lets Ernesto make her into his gilded lily, draping her in golden chains and medallions. Like the hero of Citizen Kane, Ernesto buys his mistress an entree into showbiz, financing Mateo's movie if the director lets Lena star. Lena is happy to screen-test for Mateo in a series of iconic wigs that make her resemble Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Jeanne Moreau.
But who is Lena, this dark-eyed beauty willing to be all things to all men?
That's not a question that interests Almodóvar. What attracts the director (and by extension, Mateo, the director of the movie-within-the-movie, an antic comedy called Girls and Suitcases that recalls Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) is how effortlessly Lena masks internal gloom with external gaiety.
Cruz, one of the few actresses who can be at once earthy and ethereal, is memorable here, in one of the two films opening today that might be called "Directors Are From Mars, Actresses Are From Venus." (The other film, of course, is Nine.)
Likewise, Homar is quite touching as the director haunted by memories of his lady love and muse. He's also haunted by what he might have done differently to keep love alive.
Almodóvar embeds the romance between director and actress in a melodrama - some might say meta-drama - about the varieties of thwarted love and thwarted films. (The difference between movies and amor, Almodóvar demonstrates, is that you can reedit a movie but you cannot reedit a love affair.)
Admittedly, this twisty, turny story with more curves than a scenic highway is not first-rate Almodóvar. But the cinegenic beauty of Cruz and the film's locations are indelible.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey
at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/