Once again, the grand master of Spanish cinema, Pedro Almodóvar, has done his same old thing: a crazed blend of melodrama and cinema history, spun into a twisty pile of psychosexual candy floss. One could be forgiven for wondering if and when he's ever going to move into a new phase in his career, but as long as he keeps making movies this entertaining to the eye and the trashy soap opera receptors, I for one have every intention of waiting for every new Almodóvar picture with an enthusiasm previously expressed by the Dickens fans standing on the pier begging the sailors carrying the new books over from England to tell them if Little Nell was still living.

That said, Broken Embraces is unfortunately the director's first film in quite a long time - since at least Live Flesh, twelve years and six films ago - where the strain and seams really start to show, as though the energy that he's been coasting on ever since putting together the outstanding All About My Mother in 1999 finally ran out and he was confronted with the terror of having to think about making an Almodóvar film, rather than simply making it because it came naturally. This is a dangerous place for an auteur to be in: something similar happened to Tim Burton about ten years ago, leading to his current dire run, and we need hardly mention the grim tale of Wes Anderson, who started making overly fussy, self-consciously branded pictures almost from the instant he had a recognised aesthetic.

Broken Embraces hardly finds Almodóvar in quite that territory; but it is now not unthinkable that such territory lies in wait. When you get right down to it, the whole movie has an unpleasant air of, "oh, yes, I've seen that before" to it, not least because it features re-staged moments from Almodóvar's 1989 Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. There are only so many times that a director can reference Douglas Sirk without it feeling more like an affectation than an aesthetic, maybe. As I said, we're not there yet. But I would never have had these thoughts after Bad Education or Volver.

The plot: it's 2008, and a blind writer named Harry Caine (Lluís Homar) informs us in voiceover that he used to be a film director named Mateo Blanco, back before he lost his sight. The first action we see Harry perform is to effortlessly seduce the woman reading to him out of the newspaper, the woman he's just met on the street; this pleasing but shallow encounter may have something to do with the obituary that she just read, of a businessman named Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez). In short order we also meet Harry's dear friend and agent, Judit (Blanca Portillo), and her 20-ish son Diego (Tamar Novas), both of them the only thing that keeps Harry from falling into complete self-immolating anarchy, we can imagine. And shortly after this, we see Harry meet a young avant-garde filmmaker named Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano), who wants the old writer's help to develop a screenplay about a young homosexual man who wreaks revenge on the hated memory of his recently deceased homophobic father - a huge change from the project Harry wants to start, involving Arthur Miller's son with Down syndrome, and how he came to forgive his cruelly absent father, and thus Harry declines. But he does quickly determine that Ray X can be none other than the son of the late Ernesto Martel, and this triggers a traumatic memory that Judit is eager to keep from Diego; but when business takes her out of Madrid, Harry is happy to tell the young man about his dealings with Martel back in 1994, and specifically the time that he tried to make a movie star out of Martel's live-in girlfriend, Lena (Penélope Cruz). But there was a lot more to those days in 1994 than just a wealthy businessman with a closeted son and a resentful partner; particularly once Harry - that is, Mateo - found himself falling in love with the gorgeous Lena.

That massive vomit of text carries us, oh, 25 minutes or so into the 127 minute film, which ought to tell you a bit about the kind of melodramatic narrative excess we're dealing with here; but it's an Almodóvar film, and you should really expect that sort of thing. And this is where we start to run into those hints of strain and staleness that I was fretting about: because there is a pronounced sense of "should" hanging over all of Broken Embraces: it is how it is because it "should" be that way, not because it must be, not because of some primordial drive forcing Almodóvar to make this film and no other. For the first time since the 1990s, I think that the director has put together a film without quite understanding why it is urgent for him to do so; not in all respects, but as far as the film is "only" a romantic melodrama, it is honestly a bit aimless - especially in the 2008 scenes.

What really saves Broken Embraces from itself, and makes it certainly one of the most interesting Almodóvar films of recent vintage if not one of the best, is the things the filmmaker reveals about himself as a creative being. It's not his , but it's much the closest that I think we're ever going to get. You cannot claim that Mateo Blanco "is" Pedro Almodóvar, but they have a damn awful lot in common, and the things that make them different are tremendously revealing. The crux of it all is Mateo's film project in 1994, a sex comedy called Girls and Suitcases. It is his first comedy after five dramas; and it is, as far as we can tell, exactly the same movie as Women on the Verge... Which was neither Almodóvar's first comedy, nor his sixth feature, but I think it's a least plausible that in showing a character directing a replica of his own international breakout hit; Almodóvar at least had a notion that we might equate the fictional character with his creator.

The primary drama of Broken Embraces centers around Mateo's love affair with a beautiful woman played by Penélope Cruz; and here we cannot quite say that he is a strict analogue for his creator; for Almodóvar is perhaps the most prominently gay filmmaker in the world. At the same time, he certainly has the kind of relationship where she can be safely called his current muse - the way she is filmed in Broken Embraces is at times absurdly weighted to proving just how gorgeous and elegant a woman she is, most notably in a scene that serves no narrative function except to put Cruz in a series of wigs, and lit to look as unbelievably beautiful as she ever has in anything. And Almodóvar has a well-documented fascination with eroticising the female body, gay man or not. Is Broken Embraces his attempt to depict himself as a straight man, with his love of women based in something sexual rather than something purely aesthetic? I have absolutely no idea. That's actually a really stupid rhetorical question to have even asked. The fact is, I don't know what to make of the strange crush of meta-narrative pseudo-autobiographical elements of this story. But I know that they're incredibly interesting to roll around in your head, and I'll take an interesting movie with no answers to a resolutely straightforward one any day.

And hey, Broken Embraces gives us both. I don't want to keep coming down on a movie I mostly liked, but the romance narrative of the film really has a lot of stiffness and shallowness that keeps bothering me no matter how much I try to ignore it. It's very lead-footed, for Almodóvar; which means that in the context of all cinema, it's sparkling and delightful melodrama, and tremendously well-acted, but just not as sparkling or delightful as the movies that made me fall in love with him. At least it looks gorgeous - the director's first collaboration with the sublimely gifted Rodrigo Prieto, who takes to Almodóvar's characteristic candy-colored mise en scène like a duck to water, and like I said: he makes Penélope Cruz look as gorgeous as she ever has. That's pretty damn gorgeous. The palette of the film overall may be just a touch muted, especially following something as glitzy as Volver, but it's still all kinds of shiny - I just wish that Almodóvar the writer was in a fine form as Almodóvar the stylist, because then we might have had something really spectacular here. Oh well, every awe-inspiring run of greatness has to end somewhere. And "very good" is a nice place for that end to happen.