Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Bad Education (La mala educacion)

I always had trouble finding Barbara Stanwyck attractive. There was something about her that didn’t sit right with me; and maybe that’s the way it had to be for her to work as well as she did in Double Indemnity. Maybe it isn’t physical beauty that ensnares the hapless male into destroying himself for the femme fatale. Thinking about it, it’s obvious; there’s something so much more dangerous about an individual who has to use their brain and their cunning to manipulate and can’t rely on their body alone. Something sexier about the face that isn’t quite perfectly proportioned.

And for once, Gael García Bernal might be too pretty. Playing the homme/femme fatale in Pedro Almodóvar’s new movie, and comporting himself very attractively in each of his roles, he fails to inspire me with the sinister attraction a noir or a noir-homage needs. While the gender switching is exciting, there is something too naïve in his character for me to believe in his success as a manipulator. There are plenty of pretty people out there; most of them cannot command the kind of devotion that leads to the ruination of the devotee’s life. I just don’t believe it of Angel.

And perhaps that’s part of the point. I don’t know what Almodóvar was thinking. He has said that he intended this film, or at least certain scenes of it, to hearken back to film noir classics (such as Double Indemnity). Maybe the central figure’s clumsiness signifies the director’s desire to move past the imitative stage and into a statement on the genre. Regardless, there is too much going on here. Reality and fiction intertwine and merge in intriguing but not always cohesive ways, and the audience is asked to follow the threads of different characters played by the same actor and different actors playing the same character. The result is fascinating and beautiful, but not altogether satisfying. I was rewarded by a second viewing; knowing the ins and outs of the plot I could concentrate better on the motivations and felt better about the characters. But I think Almodóvar has attempted too much here.

I still can’t blame him, though. While I like Talk to Her (Habla con ella) more, this is by far the most visually beautiful film he has ever made. While he and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine have not worked together in over ten years (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), they should definitely not shy away from collaborating in the future. Some of the images from this film will stay with me for awhile. While its homage to noir exists mostly in little touches and not a prevailing style (which distracted me greatly, especially on first viewing) I can’t bring myself to find fault with it. There are beautiful sequences in a swimming pool, at a soccer game (both with lovely use of slow-motion), and numerous shots that comment visually on the characters themselves. As any good film should have.

The Sea Inside, the film that gobbled up all the Spanish awards this year, has yet to open here. But while I am a fan of Almodóvar’s work, and while I wish him the best, I can see that there is room to top this movie. Luckily, there’s room to watch and love it, as well.

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