In Pedro Almodóvar’s new movie Bad Education the successful young movie director Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez) is clipping bizarre news items for inspiration for his next project when a young man claiming to be Ignacio Rodríguez (Gael García Bernal), a friend of his from parochial school, walks in with a story based on their experiences there. That story, which we see dramatized as Enrique reads it, shows how Enrique and Ignacio, who had fallen in love with each other, were separated by the dominating headmaster Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho). Father Manolo’s objections were not truly moral or spiritual: he had himself been molesting Ignacio and believed he was in love with the boy. In the story Ignacio has become a transvestite junkie and petty criminal and returns to the school where Father Manolo still exerts his iron grip to blackmail him for the cost of a sex-change operation.
As we go back and forth between reality and the story several twists develop involving the identity of the man who says he’s Ignacio (but insists on being called Ángel) and Father Manolo’s current life, but the story holds together in a tight little package. Almodóvar fashions the movie as a film noir, with the requisite illicit sex, betrayal, drug addiction, blackmail, and murder, but while the story is intricately worked out, we’re never quite in it. The plot of a film noir, generically speaking, is an ironic romance in which the knight’s quest is driven by vice instead of virtue. What makes film noir so compulsively watchable is that the morally inverted romance puts us in the position of rooting for the technically dark knight to get away with his vicious quest just as we normally root for a white knight to achieve his virtuous quest. The dark-knight protagonist of film noir presents us with a temptation that we’re free to indulge without consequences because the plot isn’t really happening to us.
The problem with Bad Education, then, is that Enrique’s is the central perspective but the story isn’t exactly happening to him, either. I don’t mean to say that we can’t eventually tell which episodes are meant to be “real,” but that Enrique is as much an observer as a participant, if not more. Enrique is stirred, in a fairly quiet way, when Ignacio apparently re-enters his life, but he manages to get what he wants from the eye-scorching rough trade pretending to be Ignacio–sex as well as the story–while retaining his emotional control. He receives the story relatively passively, as the inspiration he’s been waiting for.
One thing you can say for Bad Education is that Bernal, who plays both the tranny Ignacio in the dramatized story and the man who says he wrote the story, has never had such impact onscreen. With those gorgeous metallic-green eyes he makes a plausible if not beautiful woman (he looks like a Juliette Lewis incapable of walking gracefully in heels), but it’s as the sexually ambiguous and parasitic Ángel that he’s really a cork-popper. (He does some motion-of-the-ocean push-ups that made my boyfriend wobble on his axis.) Bernal presents the hard surface of self-interest with amazing variety–it’s always a good thing when he appears because the movie’s mischief level goes way up. It’s thus doubly disappointing that Almodóvar’s over-complicated storytelling diffuses the jolts Bernal sends through us.
Bernal plays the tempter whose duplicitous schemes should lead Enrique astray. But Enrique also represents Almodóvar, the man very much in control of this story, and that cools everything down. In fact, Almodóvar seems purposely to keep the fragments from fusing, the better to contemplate them. This makes Bad Education the best-plotted film noir with the least degree of compulsiveness. By contrast, something borderline amateurish like Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) has far more of the nightmarish inevitability, that snapping down of the cookie jar on the protagonist’s fingers, that makes film noir almost sickeningly fascinating. (The cookie jar is often between someone else’s legs: e.g., Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).)
The single biggest difference between me and other critics is that they think of movies as being about their subjects. With the exception of naturalism (the purest form being documentary) I think it’s analytically more precise to think of movies as dramatizing their subjects. That is, movies don’t make statements about topics (not even the movies that attempt to) but conform the elements of their subject matter to the mechanics of genre. Thus, it seems totally misplaced, as well as cuckoo, for David Denby in The New Yorker to opine that Bad Education “asks: Is love possible between men, or is it possible only between innocent boys?” Quite apart from how peculiar a question that would be if anyone asked it, this comment tells you that critics not only don’t know their field–narrative aesthetics–they don’t even know it is their field.
Bad Education doesn’t “ask” anything; it tracks the effects of contending vices. The problem is that the movie adopts the perspective of the most detached character. I’m actually glad Almodóvar pulls back from Ignacio’s version of the priest’s story, which tends toward melodrama. Father Manolo’s life after leaving the school (when he’s played by Lluís Homar) is more interesting. But I wonder if Almodóvar didn’t hesitate to pluck and let resonate the nightmarish strings of the story for fear of losing control of the audience’s reactions (and possibly triggering some form of homophobia?).
Father Manolo represents both a sadistic fantasy of the daddy-rapist and then later the masochistic fantasy of the older man being gamed by the amoral, insouciant hottie hustler. As the latter figure he suffers the downtrending results of giving in to temptation that Almodóvar spares Enrique. (Enrique, the Almodóvar figure, outplays Ángel and isn’t much older or less attractive; the lithely muscular Martínez as Enrique is plainly a fantasy identification for Almodóvar, though not for us.) Almodóvar has thus divided the film noir protagonist into two characters, the older Father Manolo and Enrique, neither of whom pulls us in.
Finally, we’re not expected to indulge any of these fantasies, from either the top’s or the bottom’s perspective. And Almodóvar seems more comfortable as Enrique piecing the story together with relative impassiveness because it keeps the movie from turning us on. It’s hard to make a good film noir if you’re uncomfortable with your audience’s corruptibility. The true film noir romancer is entirely devoted to dangling temptations in front of us and then hooking us through our lolling, drooling tongues. Making Enrique the dominant figure has the effect on Bad Education that making Edward G. Robinson’s incorruptible insurance adjustor the main character would have had on Double Indemnity. With film noir you want to feel sucked into the story.
Last year François Ozon’s Swimming Pool managed to put an emotionally detached writer figure at the center of a black little crime story and still be totally absorbing. In Swimming Pool reality, fantasy, and fiction likewise converge in the wake of the bad end of a relationship, but it’s a much better marriage of perspectives inside and outside the plot. We see the story from the point-of-view of the novelist played by Charlotte Rampling, who manages to maintain control and come out on top, but we also see her objectively for what she is. And unlike Almodóvar’s Enrique she has her vices, as a woman and as a writer, to go alongside those of the amoral girl she’s spying on and writing into her new novel. In Bad Education Enrique is just the collage artist, and his sexual exploitation of “Ignacio” isn’t even treated as a vice but as something more along the lines of research. Bad Education is never as involving as Swimming Pool–there’s too much of the Almodóvar figure and at the same time too little of Almodóvar the free-associative artist.
Bad Education isn’t insipid the way Almodóvar’s All About My Mother was, attempting too hard to make happy elective families out of drug addicts, transvestites, prostitutes, and the HIV infected. Talk to Her was a lot better, in no small part because the compulsive sexual malfeasance was at the heart of the movie, unlike Father Manolo’s in Bad Education. (Priests molesting altar boys may be scissored from the news like the dead motorcyclist and the suicide-by-crocodiles that intrigue Enrique but it’s a fairly arbitrary aspect of the movie.) Though it’s been shot, edited, and released, to overwhelmingly positive reviews, Bad Education is still no more than a great idea for a movie.
You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.
Alan Dale is the author of What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s and Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.