Drea de Matteo
1 Hr. 35 Mins.
Broken English January 21, 2019
ora (Parker Posey) feels like she’s treading water. She's in her late 30s and working in the guest relations department of a tony hotel; she’s never been in a long-term relationship. She wonders where her life is going. As she at one point explains to a date, she thought, early in her adult life, that she was going to work in the art world. She thought she'd be married and have kids by the time she turned 30. Nora says all this
with a modest smile and a slightly sarcastic affect. But her eyes — a little droopy and a little watery — suggest that reiterating her frustrations for the umpteenth time is, per usual, painful for her.
In Broken English (2007), Nora navigates a series of relationships, the majority of them unfulfilling and short-lived. The last depicted — luckily neither unfulfilling nor short-lived (or so it seems) — is with a French guy named Julien (Melvil Poupaud), who is very clearly the cousin of the mythic Mr. Right. Distance and circumstances may keep their promising romance as transitory as Nora’s other conquests, though.
While watching Broken English, which was written by Zoe Cassavetes, daughter of John, I was reminded of last year’s Let the Sunshine In. That film, which stars Juliette Binoche and is directed by Claire Denis, follows the romantic exploits of a similarly disaffected woman. There are key differences, of course: the Binoche character is an older divorcée and is rather satisfied in her career. There is no clear perfect man for her waiting at the end of the tunnel whereas for Nora there seems to be. But at their cruxes are these movies relatively analogous — about women who, despite just wanting a gratifying romantic life, have found their searches for love rendered Sisyphean. During Broken English's second act, Nora says to a friend that she’d like to plain and simply get a boyfriend — something that seems facile but for her has proven itself an unthinkably difficult task.
Let the Sunshine In was efficient because Denis made us feel as if we'd been let loose in her heroine’s world. Whatever machinations were put in place to push the story forward were almost undetectable. You can see the seams in Cassavetes’ work by contrast. Though the first stretch of the feature — which mostly encompasses Nora’s botched flings and a farrago of subplots — is convincing, the Julien-centric half is labored, and not just because the latter character is drawn as almost too perfect. It is with Julien that the sympathetic Nora begins to act in such a way that betrays the character we’ve come to know; the finale, which finds her traveling to France to try to track him down, is a mess of improbable action and inelegant dialogue.
None of this is to say that Broken English is entirely third-rate. Cassavetes’ writing is sometimes well-informed and observant; scenes involving Nora and her mother (Gena Rowlands) sharply recreate what it’s like to have your parent adding to your romantic anxieties, for instance. Posey’s performance, which admixes the actress’ impressive ability to be at once splendent and noticeably vulnerable, is characteristically exceptional. If less emphasis were put on narrative, perhaps Broken English might sing with truer rawness — not broken by its imperfections but strengthened by them. C+