top of page

Russian Dolls

Detours September 13, 2021 

On Bad Education


ear the end of Pedro Almódovar’s labyrinthine thriller Bad Education

(2004), a couple goes to the movies. These men could use a distraction: they’re

still buzzing from a murder they’ve committed in the name of love and money. But rather than provide a space to temporarily escape their anxieties, this cinemagoing experience provides them with more. The theater is in the middle of a weeklong celebration of film noir — selections include Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Jean Cocteau’s La Bête Humaine (1938) — and so when the couple walks out a few hours later, one of the men understandably looks more rankled than he had buying tickets. “It’s like the films are talking about us,” he says nervously. Bad Education is the type of movie where a weekend matinee is included not only to confirm what earlier films it is itself taking

Gael García Bernal in 2004's "Bad Education."

after, but to remind us how movies, at their best, can feel alive — feel confrontational. With Bad Education, movie-lover Almodóvar wants us to react a little like this couple: finish the movie feeling abuzz and a little knock-kneed. 


Evidently inspired by films like Double Indemnity and also the glittering melodramas of Douglas Sirk and Rainer Warner Fassbinder, Bad Education is itself a confrontational movie, albeit in a mostly pleasurable, familiar-for-Almodóvar way: photographed with brassy color, intricately plotted, bleeding sex and stylized violence. You’d never dream of watching it passively. With Bad Education,

 Almodóvar makes it nearly impossible to find your footing — his narrative keeps mutating, revealing new tricks; characters have a flair for deceit — but that’s part of its fun. The movie epitomizes the old cliché of a thriller keeping you on your toes, only for Almodóvar that doesn’t exclusively pertain to the storytelling. 


Bad Education marks a welcome change of pace for the filmmaker after his comparatively emotional, dramatically sobered last three movies, Live Flesh (1997), All About My Mother (1999), and Talk to Her (2002); it harkens back to the early days of his career when he was primarily in the business of shilling lurid, as-outrageous-as-possible entertainment. It’s a very enjoyable movie. And like all good film noir Bad Education does a stellar job seducing us into a sexily duplicitous world where anything could be a death trap. (Though it’s also one that clumsily trivializes subjects that could benefit from more thoughtfulness than Almodóvar allots them; there is some prickliness, surely unintended by the director, that pokes through the pleasure — more on that later.)

It’s not that useful to attempt a thorough summary of everything Bad Education is about. Its narrative toggles between several time periods; a good chunk of the action is set inside a movie the main characters are shooting, too. The foundation for the film’s go-go-go plotting is a short story. At the beginning of Bad Education, which starts in 1980, that short story is hand-delivered to a hot-young movie director, Enrique (Fele Martínez), by a hirsute young actor who calls himself Ángel (Gael García Bernal). Ostensibly the writer of the tale (for now he’s calling it “The Visit”), Ángel thinks that what he has put to the page would make for a great film. The reason Ángel has the chutzpah to personally cart it off to Enrique, wary agent at his side and writer’s block in his brain, is because, back in the day, when he still went by Ignacio rather than Ángel, he and Enrique were not just classmates at the same Catholic school but also each other’s first loves before a premature separation. 

Bad Education then dives headfirst into a protracted dramatization of “The Visit.” It details the story of a transgender woman, Zahara (also played by Bernal), who by night performs as a lounge singer and by day blackmails the priest who sexually abused her as a child. Then the film zooms back outward into Enrique’s immediate world, where one is supposed to wonder just how much of “The Visit” is based in truth (some of its flashbacks, set in 1964, pull directly from Ángel and Enrique’s time in school), and whether Ángel, who is increasingly resistant about revealing personal details, is actually the author of the text as he claims. Enrique tells Ángel at one point that he doesn’t trust him. (Enrique will afterward learn even more about Ángel on the down low that produces more red flags.) Nonetheless, the men begin a sexual relationship where it seems that part of the appeal, for Enrique, is the maybe-dangerous-maybe-not uncertainty around this masculine variation on the femme fatale. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Ángel, living up to his name, is almost ethereally good-looking.

Gael García Bernal in 2004's Bad Education.


ad Education goes to progressively wilder places, though it never gets so convoluted as to be confusing. One of the joys of the movie is that it’s a little like a cinematic puzzle box: Almodóvar has meticulously

worked out all the moves that will eventually solve it, and you relish how it all eventually comes together. But the headiness of the plotting comes at the expense of characterization. As outwardly interesting as its players are, they are, ultimately, a bit hard to penetrate, which does take something away from the invariably good performances. (Enrique especially is mostly a device, a largely unexamined stand-in for the bewildered viewer.) Bernal in particular does career-changingly excellent work, shedding skins without ever giving away whether he’s more comfortable in one than in another, but because Almodóvar delights more in the breathless chameleonicness of the character than he does his deep-rooted desires, Bernal’s work becomes a lot of striking showing but not enough telling. Not the fault of the actor, but of the filmmaker who provided the material Bernal is sculpting with. 


This problem is generally forgivable as it relates to the characters; Bad Education is the kind of movie where narrative and style trump all in a likable way. The characters become intriguing, well-dressed chess pieces. But this frivolousness also bleeds into the more serious components of the movie, and in a way more ill-considered than excusable. The sexual abuse Ignacio endured as a child is dealt with mostly as a plot device — more fodder to help this wildfire of a narrative continue burning — than as something traumatic or worth seriously interrogating. We don’t really hear how Ignacio himself views what he went through; he seems to look at his exploitation mostly as blackmail material. 


And the fact that Zahara is transgender is not only misguidedly grouped in with the general role-playing most of the characters around her perform, but also tacitly 

suggested to be a manifestation of an inherently deceitful nature, a damaging trope often pinned on transgender characters in movies that while not deployed here with brash mean-spiritedness like it has been in other films (1991’s Soapdish or 1994’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective come to mind) nevertheless perpetuates a denigrating stereotype. 


Problems like these have followed Almodóvar throughout his career. You’re taken with his boldness and innovative ways of both synthesizing and reimagining various genres of yore (Bad Education is an audacious jumble of film noir and melodrama). But every so often you notice he’s playing a little too fast and loose with subject matter deserving of 

more nuance. Bad Education is a thrilling, cleverly layered film. The title cards of the finale suggest its story could continue feeding a several-seasons-long soap opera; that Almodóvar still has more to add to his constantly twisting tale made me laugh out loud. But the film’s ostentatiousness has its limits. B+

bottom of page