I’ve been thinking about Almodovar’s Bad Education since I saw it a couple of weeks ago. Its not my favorite film of his—that honor goes to All About My Mother—but it is the gravest of his films I’ve seen so far, and I think the most pessimistic. Amazingly, he does this without sacrificing elements of his whimsy, humor and compassion that come through in all of his films.
There are two reasons I am finding this film compelling, and they are intertwined. One is the way it deals with sex, and the other the way it deals with gayness (or more specifically, homosexuality). Set in 1980, and in the 60’s, this film explores (gay) sex as a mercenary act in a way that I haven’t seen before, as well as sex as obsession, desire, love, and trade. I suppose this is nothing unique. Especially considering this film is a serious tribute to the noir genre, this should come as no surprise. People are constantly using sex and desire in noir films to achieve what they want. But they are usually heard-hearted women. What we have here, in the Ignacio character played in the film, and within the film, by Gael Garcia Bernal, is a man that does it. (Bernal, by the by, is brilliant in this) Sometimes in the guise of a wanna-be woman, sometimes as a man, but always as a mercenary.
Here is where the film has stuck with me—it occurred to me later that what is remarkable about the film is that it is peopled with men, all about men wanting other men, using other men, having sex with other men, making love to other men, but somehow is not what I would term a gay film. Certainly the way that all of the characters act is informed by the (hetero) culture at large, but the matter-of-factness of the sex makes the characters seem not gay but part of a world that trades on sex and desire to get what it wants. Pessimistic, yes. Gay, no. I cannot recall seeing another film with so much sex between men that didn’t feel like a self-consciously gay affair. And perhaps it is Almadovar’s true exploration of his characters’ motivations beyond only their sexuality that gives this film a more expansive feeling. True, the characters are all motivated by desire, and mostly gay desire, but it is never foregrounded as gay, rather just one more of the motivators that drive people to desperate acts.
I should also say that this is a film that touches on the subject of pedophilia, and implicitly shows what is so upsetting about it, while at the same time championing young gay love. Quite a feat. There is a scene with a priest, where we know he is obsessed with the young Ignacio. The scene is set near a river. We are aware that the priest is going to try something with the boy, and this is made all the more disturbing by the images of boys playing in the water. We are brought into it by the sensual, slow-motion way the boys are filmed. I can’t recall being so disturbed in a theater in a while. We are being shown the boys through the eyes of the priest and it is unsettling, and in no way arousing. What comes next is most amazing—the boy rebuffs the priest, but he finds solace with another boy. The priests advances in no way push him there, he is not self-hating—none of the usual clichés apply. He is falling in love with another boy. And it is joyful to see. We actually cheer them on, and hope they can overcome the awful jealousy of the priest. Almodovar manages to celebrate love between adolescent boys coming of age, but without exploiting it, and also underscore the very important distinction between boys discovering for themselves their feelings for each other, or being coerced into an unhealthy relationship by an authority figure. I don’t think I’ve seen this done before. Any kind of discovery of love between young people in film is difficult, and it can be severly ooky and exploitative, homosexual or heterosexual (I’m especially annoyed with 5 year olds asking each other out on sitcoms, as if this compulsory sexualizaton of young children is supposed to be cute—ugh—it’s the same category as 6 year old beauty pageants—but that’s another story). Almodovar manages to show us without exploiting or over cutsifying, and also shows how that deep attachment to each other shapes the boys in later life when we meet them as adults. All without being a “gay” film. Quite an achievement.
And I have to say I love that he uses real transsexuals in his films. They are interesting full characters, and not star turns by an actor. They’re people. And I have to give him a big yeeha for that, as it’s another part of his embracing of everyone. This may be his most pessimistic film yet, but you can tell he loves people. Though his characters are sometimes larger than life, and most of the time driven and full of DRAMA!, they are never, ever, two- dimensional.
I would say, from what I have seen, Almodovar is the only director, along with Lucas Moodysson, whose entire oeuvre I would love to own.
This is not to say that this is a yay yay happy film at all. I think it’s his darkest, most pessimistic work to date. There isn’t much love in the film, except maternal and the love of the two boys, and most of the desire and sex is, as I’ve said, mercenary. That said, it’s sticking with me.