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Bad Education (Pedro Almodovar, 2004)


    It’s ironic that the last image that Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education offers us is a close-up of the Spanish word “pasión”, because the film feels far too rarefied and precise for its own good. A twisting tale of romantic obsession and fractured psyches, Bad Education is so fraught with meaning and substance that watching it is something of a chore, even when it tries its hardest to be sensuous. Like a straight man looking at a drag queen, any erotic stirrings that might crop up while watching the film is filtered through a layer of denial. One of the numerous valid interpretations of the title of this film about movie going and movie making would be to draw the conclusion that films are a bad education for life, but the “real” world here, which is made quite separate from the filmed one, is itself such an inane and contrived conception that Bad Education never feels grounded in emotional territory that’s in any way familiar. It operates exactly as the movies have taught us, and it essentially confirms its own movie-ness. For Almodovar’s ambitious, and even impressive, layering of realities to have any effect on his audience, who view films in a very different light, he needs to do better than this in blending his theory and practice.


    Bad Education is not so much a film about how we, the audience, experience films as it’s about how the characters in this particular film experience cinema. Such a distinction might sound like nitpicking, but it’s a crucial difference that leaves Bad Education a cold, overly analytical exercise. Almodovar acts the drama queen here, but he strives for self-awareness at the same time, and it honestly feels that he can’t have it both ways. On a scene by scene basis, his histrionics might work, but the mind-numbing series of parallels that he subjects us to has a deadening effect. It’s impossible to get caught up in the moment when you’re reflecting on the other moments that you’ve seen up until that point. This schematic approach is Almodovar’s mode of choice of late. He’s always trying to paint us into a corner morally by manipulating our responses and withholding information from us. An extended sequence in Bad Education in which we see transvestite Gael Garcia Bernal acting out a role in an imagined movie, is the worst example of this to date. When, we later find out that Garcia Bernal is an impostor in this role, and when we find that the director imagining the film suspected this all along, the lack of discordance in his casting in this sequence becomes a major sticking point. It feels wrong because it didn’t feel more wrong when you saw it play out. For all of Almodovar’s striking exactitude, he can’t make the film hit you on a gut level. Everything feels so thoroughly processed here that character motivations become blurry, essentially crippling the film as a genre piece.


    Surely, the film noir genre, where nothing is quite as it appears, is theoretically ideal for Almodavar, who utilizes transvestites and temporarily confusing flashbacks with equal aplomb here. Still, the film stumbles whenever it tries to approximate the crushing anxiety that is the touchstone of any memorable noir work. Bad Education’s third act in particular plods along, presumably trying to intensify complicated emotions after a predictable, Vertigo-inspired twist has been revealed, but Almodovar can’t even begin to pay the debt that invoking Hitchcock carries. His revelations aren’t a sucker-punch to our beliefs. They generally confirm what we have suspected from the first frame. Most classic noir works at least allow us to think temporarily that there’s at least a veneer of normalcy that’s been fractured by the cruel world in which the film takes place, but from the opening frames of Bad Education, we’re clearly immersed in an alternative space, where we would fully expect appearances to be deceptive. As a result, it’s not at all surprising or effective for us to think less of the characters we like immediately and find redemption in those who we might initially abhor. After a while of this bait and switch, Almodovar’s endless compassion toward his characters feels like an obligatory case of a filmmaker who’s too sure he’s dotting all of his “i”s and crossing all of his “t”s. Ultimately, each of this film’s exquisitely articulated, but coolly dispatched themes achieves the same deadening effect. Though intellectually Bad Education is more than satisfying, true passion seems to be completely out of its grasp.



Jeremy Heilman