Recently I discussed "Bad Education" with a friend who did not share my appreciation for the film.
"His last movie, 'Talk to Her', was a deeply emotional work and a masterpiece," she said. "But when a director goes from a work like that to mere l´art pour l´art, he has nothing left to say for the time being. He is like the filmmaker Enrique in 'Bad Education': burnt out, fooling around with mysteries, confused identities and cover-ups."
I had to admit that initially, I would not have disagreed. At least not strongly. I, too, thought the formalistic games of storytelling, shifts in perspective, style and mood covered up the topic of sexual abuse and made the film seem oddly superficial. But I was riveted from the start by the players and the riddles of who is who. And I had sensed an overall despair where my friend had only felt emptiness.
I, too, had expected a very different movie after "Talk to Her". But unpredictability has been Almodóvar's trade mark. He entered the international movie scene with the chaotic, juvenile improvisations of "Labyrinth of Passion" (1982), followed by the provocatively absurd nuns-and-drugs story "Dark Habits" (1983), the zany caricature of domestic tedium "What Have I Done to Deserve This" (1984), the operatic kitsch of "Matador"(1986). His first real hit was the laugh-out-loud farce "Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" (1988), his next flop, however, the bad -taste caper "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down" (1990)... Most of these early comedies and parodies seemed to be stylistically out of control, the script apparently zigzagging along with the production process day by day, with more or less coherent results. What little the earlier films had in common could be summed up by their fearless excess, gender mix-ups, omnisex and outrageous portraits of policemen.
But lately there has been a rising arc of more seriously mastered and coherently told movies from the Spanish director – starting with "High Heels" (1991). Then came "The Flower of my Secret" (1995), "Live Flesh" (1997), "All About My Mother" (1999) and finally "Talk to Her" (2002). With only one low point ("Kika", 1993), this remarkable arc gave rise to the expectation that "Bad Education" would be another masterpiece.
"Maybe he's scared to become a classic already," my friend speculated. "He has to remain the bad boy of great cinema..."
"Talk to Her" was the closest Almodóvar ever came to a "classical" form of story and storytelling. A morally ambiguous story for sure, but told with poetic leisure and surprising emotional and contemplative moods. Of course there was something unmistakably Almodóvaristic in the comically touching story of two men in love with two comatose women. But there was a new element in "Talk to Her". Whereas Almodóvar´s previous movies used to evolve around and live from the presence of screen-eating, gloriously and hysterically obsessed women, the focus had suddenly shifted to men, to men's tender and touching emotions and friendship-love. The presence of the women was, well, subdued.
In "Bad Education", women have altogether disappeared. "But he hasn't replaced the beauty of women with that of men ," my friend observed. "This time, the transsexuals are rather ugly, off-putting. They are painful to watch at times."
Indeed, this was and is a puzzle for me, too. To cast Gael Garcia Bernal only to rob him of his usual appeal? We are allowed to savor his transformation into a sensational woman for 15 seconds perhaps, when he is the show star of a transvestite cabaret, but for the rest of the movie he is either the cheap, garish transsexual (Zahara/ Ignacio) or the burly hairy guy (Angel/ Ignacio) who needs to lose weight. The ads for the movie heavily lean on Bernal's star turn as the glamour Queen, setting the wrong expectations. For me as a fan of the sensitive, ambiguous actor, this is frustrating, no matter how well Bernal does Almodóvar´s bidding in these contradictory parts.
Like Felllini before him, Almodóvar would have had no problem casting spectacular stars in the trans-roles – as he proved many times before, for example in "All About My Mother". Toni Cantó as Lola was as gorgeous as all the women in the movie (if not more) . The men-turned-into-women in Bad Ed are old-hat stereotypes, glaringly backward compared to Toni Canto's Lola or to the astonishingly androgynous men in "Talk to Her". (Interestingly, one of these androgynous actors, Javier Cámara, seems to have fun playing Paquita, one of the burlesque caricatures in "Bad Education".) The element of nastiness in all this mocking plays against the serious theme of abuse, making it seem less relevant and less believable at first.
Of course one could argue that if the trans-gender characters in "Bad Education" are comically and painfully over-the-top, this is how Almodóvar´s actresses, too, have always looked or acted. Like caricatures – more female impersonators than real women. I have often wondered if the women weren't in fact men – even Rosario Flores, the matador in "Talk to Her". To me, part of the pleasure watching Almodóvar´s movies has been this guessing game. In his deliberate play with gender fluidity and identity mix-ups, all his movies were placed at a refreshing nonconformist edge. But Almodóvar used to cast stunningly beautiful women like Carmen Maura, Marisa Paredes, or Victoria Abril, characters that were often larger than life, dressed and made up like Goddesses. There is nothing comparable in "Bad Education" except for the exquisitely beautiful 10-year-old boys.
I assume that the renunciation of adult beauty in "Bad Education" must have been a deliberate choice. Perhaps a political choice?
Perhaps the nastiness of the old stereotypes is supposed to hint at Spain's Franco era retardedness? The protagonists of the story have grown up under Franco's dictatorship: they fall in love as boys in the early sixties and meet again 16 years later. Even though Almodóvar has apparently refused to acknowledge the existence of Franco directly in any way in his work, one can certainly read many of his films as reflections on the Spanish état d´âme of past repression ( the machismo in "High Heels", for example). Whether one sees in "Bad Education" a hint at Franco or simply a comment on the abusive power of the Catholic church in Spain, one could argue that the soul murder caused by sexual abuse has robbed the men not just of their innocence and moral integrity, but also of their beauty.
But how about Enrique, the boy who was not sexually abused but was traumatically punished for his infatuation with Ignacio, and who became the filmmaker?
Played by Fele Martínez, the adult Enrique is good looking. He comes across as cold and shut-down, but also as sensitive. He wears muted orange socks with his muted orange shirt when he goes to spy on Ignacio by visiting his mother. He feels inspired by the fait divers in the tabloid telling about a woman who embraced the crocodile that ate her. His more "feminine" type contrasts with the burly, bearded manliness of Gael Garcia Bernal's Angel. In Enrique's eyes, Angel is obviously wrong for the role of Ignacio because he is not feminine and delicate enough. Nonetheless Enrique has an eye on him, as does the priest who buys his favors. There have always been young studs and hunks in Almodóvar´s films – from Antonio Banderas to Liberto Rabál ("Live Flesh"), but casting Bernal as a beefcake is perplexing. Enrique ends up raping Angel, thus robbing him of his "masculinity" – apparently as a punishment for Angel's false claim to be Ignacio. Then he lets Angel play the "feminine" role of Ignacio as "Zahara", the transsexual. The manly guy becomes the trashy femme. Could the grotesque elements of the femme character be seen as a personal revenge of the filmmaker against the actor who is "wrong" in every way?
At this point in my discussion with my friend we pondered the relevance of this story to the director, Almodóvar. My friend had read that Almodóvar himself maintains he wasn't sexually abused. But what is his personal relationship to sexual abuse? Almodóvar went to a Catholic boys school run by Salesian Brothers in the provincial town of Cáceres, and he, too, spent as much time as possible in the local movie palace. A little later, Almodóvar was a transvestite ( he shows up as himself in a funny cameo in "Labyrinth of Passion"). Even if he escaped the abuse he could have had a lover or lovers like Ignacio, or been an indirect victim like Enrique. As an artist, Enrique awakens from his frozen state by engaging himself with, and embracing, the crocodile of sexual abuse by making of a movie about it.
Such a speculation seems reasonable for two reasons: 1) all fiction has its (conscious or unconscious) autobiographical roots; 2) my mind loves the hunt for deeper reasons – especially if they seem invited by a surface of complicated formalistic mirror games.
Fortunately, a work of art never provides the answers to this kind of questions. Therefore, one is compelled, as I was, to return to "Bad Education" – a film that makes one think, re-think, and then think again.