Oh, You Pretty Things
by Lauren Kaminsky

Bad Education
Dir. Pedro Almod贸var, Spain, Sony Pictures Classics

Despite Pedro Almod贸var鈥檚 reputation for portraying sexual outrageousness and deviance, most of his films are pretty straight鈥攊n All About My Mother, not one but two characters are impregnated by a transvestite, underscoring that his gender-bending is often more concerned with drag camp than sexual orientation; Talk to Her鈥檚 matador, Rosario Flores, is the sexiest woman in drag since Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, and her devoted lover treats her as such, which upsets gender roles in a solidly hetero way.

Bad Education is every bit as interested in drag for drag鈥檚 sake but only within the context of an almost entirely gay male world. Here, Almod贸var is comfortable enough to stop using women as surrogates for gay men; as a result his male characters are allowed more depth and nuance. Perhaps it鈥檚 all due to Bad Education鈥檚 autobiographical ingredients, and we鈥檙e meant to understand the film as his personal narrative of abuse and recrimination. Bad Education is Almod贸var鈥檚 film noir, and it is by far his most masculine film. His previous two films (Talk to Her and All About My Mother) were melodramas through and through鈥攁 decidedly feminine genre鈥攁nd as such were populated by the multidimensional female characters for which Almod贸var is famous. In comparison, the absence of women in Bad Education is stunning. Those that do appear can be counted on one hand, and their total screen time probably lasts less than five minutes: the character Ignacio鈥檚 long-suffering mother and grandmother; the peripherally glimpsed make-up girl Monica (played by Leonor Watling, the comatose ballerina in Talk to Her); and, courtesy of archival footage, Sara Montiel鈥攁n idol of femininity, but not woman in the flesh.

The film begins in 鈥淢adrid, 1980鈥 in the office of accomplished film director Enrique Goded (Fel茅 Mart铆nez), as he sifts through newspaper clippings looking for the plot of his next film. He is interrupted by a butch, bearded man, clad in plaid (played by official dreamboat Gael Garc铆a Bernal) who introduces himself as his childhood friend Ignacio, now an aspiring actor known by the stage name Angel. Ignacio/Angel asks Enrique to read a story he has written, 鈥淭he Visit,鈥 based in part on their childhood. Enrique politely agrees (though he stubbornly refuses to use the stage name), promises to call, and sends him on his way. Enrique explains to his assistant: 鈥淗e was my first love.鈥

That evening, when Enrique reads the story in his dark, empty home, Alm贸dovar cuts to the action of Ignacio鈥檚 tale as it unfolds in the film Enrique is about to make. The first shot of the film-within-the-film shows an old movie house plastered with layers of posters obscuring everything but the eyes of Sara Montiel, the Spanish-language film star and campy muse of the postwar period. Another cut reveals the closest thing to Sara in the flesh: a Jean-Paul Gaultier dress so memorable it deserves its own place in the credits. Beads outline the butt, breasts, and pubic triangle. When the camera finally winds its way to the top of the dress, we discover that it鈥檚 Angel in the role of Zahara, Ignacio鈥檚 vampy drag alter-ego. Zahara sings in a lispy Castilian accent, wagging her tongue seductively at one nightclub patron in particular, who turns out to be a childhood sweetheart named Enrique.

The action, constantly folding in on itself, thus far has been nothing more than a prelude鈥攁 three-act drama soon unfolds with stunning precision and economy, taking place in three different time periods: sometime in the early Sixties, 1977, and 1980. Most characters are played by at least two actors to account for change over time, and there鈥檚 also the challenge of distinguishing the film-within-the-film from 鈥渞eality鈥濃攁ll this in a terse 105 minutes. Bad Education鈥檚 allusions to Vertigo and other Hitchcock films abound鈥攏ot least in Almodovar鈥檚 own Hitchcockian blink-and-miss-it cameo as Enrique鈥檚 pool cleaner. Additionally, Alberto Iglesias鈥檚 music has all the suspenseful repetition and haunting lyricism of Bernard Herrmann鈥檚 famous score. And, like Vertigo, Bad Education is easy to fault for its schizophrenia.

The first act is set in the early Sixties, at a Catholic boarding school in Franco鈥檚 Spain, where Ignacio and Enrique first meet. Their cinematic and sexual awakening happens simultaneously, in the dark theater showing a Sara Montiel film. These remembered snapshots of childhood are by far the most lyrical scenes in the film: the pupils and priests play soccer in the schoolyard, which Almod贸var shoots in slow motion and sets to pristine choral harmonies. Boys swim naked in a bucolic lake, as young Ignacio sings 鈥淢oon River鈥 to the accompaniment of literature teacher Father Manolo鈥檚 guitar. It鈥檚 absurd, it鈥檚 uncomfortable, but it鈥檚 also touching. The reverie ends abruptly with Father Manolo in hot pursuit of his object of desire. Paralyzing fear abounds in these suggested scenes of sexual violence, but no anger. That would mar the boys鈥 angelic faces. So it comes later.

Like all good femmes fatales (and all great actors, for that matter), Angel has an uncanny ability for becoming whoever he鈥檚 expected to be; Enrique and Berengeur (a later, defrocked incarnation of Father Manolo) both play along, eager to remake him in the memory of a long-lost lover. It鈥檚 unclear who鈥檚 manipulating whom, and who might end up, let鈥檚 say, plummeting to his death from a bell tower. Deceit, mistaken identity, seduction, betrayal, murder鈥擜ngel proves capable of all these things, but it鈥檚 hard to blame anyone for falling for it. The final act is as close as Alm贸dovar could come to film noir, which is to say that despite the thematic and emotional darkness, every shot is full of color and almost completely absent of shadows.

And then the movie ends, just like that. The only corpse in the film was buried back in 1977鈥攏ot even kept in the basement and dressed up like mother. The climax is in its retelling, in the slow discovery of the truth. And Almod贸var has one final not-so-subtle dig on actors: we鈥檙e told that the murderer goes on to achieve great success and fame as an international movie star. So the truth is without consequence. Regardless, Bad Education may very well be remembered as his Vertigo鈥攁 mess of a film that, despite its improbable complexity, manages to achieve the rare combination of psychological suspense and human pathos. In the end, Almod贸var is more of a humanist than Hitchcock, which explains (even if it doesn鈥檛 quite forgive) his film鈥檚 quiet, frustrating conclusion; he refuses to give us the pleasure of heart-stopping certainty.