Bad Education July 21, 2016
It isn’t until a pair of scheming lovers attends a showing of a 1940s film noir at their local theater that we begin to realize that little about Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education (2004) isn’t methodically planned out. Combining the robust style of Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk, and Brian De Palma with the hedonistic maneuverings of David LaChapelle, it’s a thriller so cleverly convoluted and so vigorously in awe of art for art’s sake that Almodóvar’s own structuring of the film hardly feels like something akin to deliberation.
As his movies seem to weightlessly exist in a parallel universe comprised of Technicolor atmosphere, forlorn subject matter, and emotional garishness, it’s scenes like this one that remind us that Almodóvar is as much a film aficionado as he is a maestro of film. Upon departure from the theater, one of the characters remarks that he and his lover aren’t much different from the likes of Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff. It’s a gratuitous line in a picture so labyrinthine, maybe. But in the context of an Almodóvar movie, a moment such as this one is almost a self-referential comment, smartly placed and subtly mocking.
Intentionally, Bad Education is, at its core, a hell of a lot like a studio noir from the 1940s, but instead of John Garfield and Lana Turner being showcased as romantic leads, we’re presented with John Garfield and Farley Granger tempting one another. And black-and-white photography is pigmented, with social taboos intensified and understated love scenes amplified to graphic proportion. The usage of metafiction (much of the movie’s action takes place in a film within a film) has the possibility to pledge indecipherability, but Almodóvar’s calculated control delineates the movie as a rousing whodunit of a melodrama. Bad Education is a portentously original film; it’s one of the best of Almodóvar’s thrillingly extravagant career.
It’s no wonder that the movie is such a provocative masterpiece: he worked on the screenplay for ten years, and a filmmaker of his caliber can only heighten their own sapience through long-winded contemplation. A highly personal film for the auteur (some of its content is based off his experiences as a young man), Bad Education stars the magnificent Gael García Bernal as Ignacio Rodriguez, an aspiring actor and writer interested in providing the material and acting talent necessary for acclaimed filmmaker Enrique Goded’s (Fele Martínez) next project.
His aspiration isn’t based in sheer fantasy, though — as he and Enrique were childhood friends (first loves, in fact), there’s a sneaking chance that an Ignacio based production could be waiting in the wings so long as the goods are actually good. And they are: soon after Ignacio presents Enrique with his screenplay, “The Visit” (which details a transgender woman’s blackmail of a Catholic priest that abused her as an impressionable student), Enrique becomes enraptured with the story — part autobiographical and part soap opera — and is eager to affirm Ignacio’s celluloid dreams. Hidden, however, is the deceit that lies beneath his façade of affable ambition.
There are two films that fill the sum of Bad Education’s parts. One is its “real life” component, in which Ignacio and Enrique are artists of the screen scrounging for something cinematic to slurp up as hair-raising sexual tension rests between them. The other is made up of the events that take place in “The Visit,” which is sexually charged, sardonic, and memorably features Bernal playing the dual role of Zahara, a blonde, trans femme who serves as the movie’s quasi-heroine.
But the lines between reality and illusion grow increasingly blurred as seemingly imaginary happenings prove to be embedded in a far-reaching truth. Bad Education is initially a convulsive drama that shifts into the gears of a standard murder mystery, made all the better because its big twist is so impossible to see coming (the film doesn’t feel like a thriller for most of its length). Almodóvar is a puppet master, as easily able to manipulate our senses as he is to shifting between subject matters without losing his central preoccupations of broadstroked homage.
And Bernal gives what very well might be the greatest performance to ever call an Almodóvar film home. As both an enigmatic beaut with a few tricks up his sleeve and a metafictional, feisty female, Bernal is tasked with fleshing out an immeasurably complicated dual characterization, only to find victory thanks to beguiling percipience. Almodóvar uses Bernal as if they were Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, always framing his lead in a way that can only be described as both clinically (and artistically) infatuated and lustily exploitative. A fascinating pair, to be certain.
The film surrounding them, too, is a certifiable counterpart to their awe-inspiring devotedness. Bad Education at once feels inscrutably intimate and excitingly cinematic — like the majority of the films within Almodóvar’s oeuvre, it grabs us by the shirt collar and astounds us in the way it both holds us hostage and genuinely hypnotizes us. A