Thursday, January 05, 2012

Broken English (Film Review)

In light of posting previous writing here is the review I wrote via The Other Journal (which my brother is one of the film editors for...go Ian!), a few years ago. It's my take on the film Broken English... It was again one of those movies that just stuck with me. For days I was locked in attempts to understand the character and why it mattered to me.

A Beautiful Messy Journey: Entering Into Reality with Broken English

 Review: Broken English, Directed by Zoë Cassavetes, Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2007. 98 minutes.

Why is it that as we grow older and stronger
The road signs point us adrift and make us afraid
Saying, "You never can win," "Watch your back," "Where's your husband?"
Oh I don't like the signs that the sign makers made.
So I'm going to steal out with my paint and my brushes
I'll change the directions, I'll hit every street
It's the Tinseltown scandal, the Robin Hood vandal
She goes out and steals the King's English
And in the morning you wake up and the signs point to you

They say,
"I'm so glad that you finally made it here,"
"You thought nobody cared, but I did, I could tell,"
And "This is your year," and "It always starts here,"
And oh, "You're aging well."[i]

 The life of a single woman is not the glamorous and sexy life portrayed in shows like HBO’s Sex and the City[ii] or weekly sitcoms like the CW’s Girlfriends. In images like this the idea of someone choosing to break up with their girlfriend via post-it note is a laughable and quirky plot invention and not the dehumanizing and depressing experience that this would be in a real relationship.

As a single woman in my late twenties, these small and large screen depictions of the single life remind me of someone’s deranged fantasy. Single life is an awkward balance of good and bad that doesn’t play out in a neat comedic package.  Although I have to say that, with one exception, I seem to attract the craziest men that Seattle has to offer, but that is fodder for another article. And while my group of girlfriends does go out for the occasional martini and girl-talk nights, it looks nothing like the perfectly clothed and quaffed outings of Sex and the City. Usually we end up at someone’s house drinking Chuck Shaw wine and bemoaning the men or the lack of men in our lives.
Zoë Cassavetes' film Broken English offers a different vision of what it’s like to be a single woman than these glitzy portrayals, through the character of Nora Wilder (Parker Posey). Nora suffers from real problems and Cassavetes presents them in a beautiful but down-to-earth manner. Some of the most intriguing and compelling moments in the film are when Nora is completely broken. These moments stand out because of the absolute nakedness in which they are presented. Nora is not Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City. When she is in the midst of a breakdown, she looks the part, as if the next straw will break the camel’s back and yet still you have to walk down a public street.
Cassavetes does not glorify or sugar coat the chaos of being a single woman, but depicts both its beauty and humanity. For me one of the most heart-breaking scenes takes place the morning after Nora has gone out with Nick Gable (Justin Theroux), who is one of the guests she is responsible for as part of her position as hospitality director for a New York hotel. She wakes up hung over, at work, in bed with a man she knows is more trouble than he is worth. It is her “oh shit” moment, yet what stuck me about it beyond the artistic integrity and beauty of the scene was the sorrowful realization that all the women I know have been in that place in some form or another. Cassavetes does such a great job of displaying the reality of this moment, the self-hatred and frustration that comes with the morning after hangover.  Sitting in the dark theatre watching powerful scenes like this one I found that I was being offered an honest and cathartic experience. In spite of the differences between Nora and myself, I knew the emotions and feelings that were being evoked. She creates a space to enter into our own heartache and brokenness. By entering into Nora’s journey to understand herself, Cassavetes offers a new way of journeying. It is one of honesty and learning to value one’s self. Another wonderful segment of the film clearly portrays this change in Nora. She has flown with her best friend Audrey (Dre de Matteo) to Paris to find Julian (Melvin Poupaud). Julian is the kind and tender French man, hence the title because of the miscommunications between the two of them, who enters Nora’s life just at the point when she is completely given up on men. When they first meet Nora is really not ready to trust that Julian could see value her because she still doesn’t believe that she has any value herself. He offers her the chance to enter into a different reality, go with him to Paris, yet she declines. As Nora starts to see the beautiful and valuable woman that she is, she comes to a place where she is willing to take a risk and ends up in Paris. Because of a mix up she is unable to find Julian and is left with the decision to enter into a journey of exploring Paris and herself or leave with Audrey and go back to the way she was. Nora chooses to stay. As she wanders around the city, Cassavetes creates scenes with beautiful images of freedom and wonder. The most telling part of this segment of Nora’s journey is when she meets a man in a gallery who invites her out with some friends for drinks. Nora goes but unlike earlier in the film she values herself enough to leave. Learning to honor and value oneself is one of the biggest elements missing with most of the women I know, as well as my self, we have been conditioned to find our value in others and their views of who we are instead of ourselves. Several of my dearest girlfriends are rarely seen for who they are, but instead they are valued only for their external beauty. Constantly they have men who want to own or possess them, not encounter who they are at the heart of their personhood. So much of Nora in the beginning part of the film characterizes these aspects of being women. We are beautiful and messy human beings with much to offer to others if only they and we are open to seeing the wholeness of the person. So often the reality of this precarious dance of humanity is not seen or wanted instead, it is traded for an idealized version. This happens both in relationships and portrayals of relationships.
Nora is a beautiful mess like the rest of us. By watching her struggle I am reminded that we all struggle with the discrepancy between our desires, ideas of what we want life to be, and the reality of where we are at currently. It is in the midst of these contrasting elements that we live most of our lives, lives of silent desperation, as Virginia Woolfe would say. This desperation comes from not living into the fullness of who we are and where we are.
 So often the way in which women especially, their neurotic and pathological elements, are portrayed in film is as either cute and glamorous or psychotic and crazy. There are very few films and TV shows today that reveal women in a normal light. For an example of this negative portrayal of women take the American remake of the Italian film L’Ultimo bacio (One Last Kiss), 2006’s The Last Kiss staring Zack Braff. While the male characters in this film are portrayed in the complexities of humanity, all of the female come off as caricature.  Blythe Danner’s character is the only one who possibly escapes this fate. I found it so frustrating to watch as these women were all played as documental stereotypes; the crazy demanding wife, the seemingly nice and cool with whatever yet really crazy knife-welding girlfriend, and the young seductress who when it comes down to it wants a relationship in spite of her words to the contrary. While there are women who are mirrored in these characters, there is really no resemblance to any of the women I know. It is no wonder that interpersonal dynamics between men and women get so messy with images like these proliferating in our cultural thought. The most frustrating thing about many of the films created around the topic of relationships, is that so often in the development of the story there is so little space for both men and women to be beautiful and flawed human beings stumbling around trying to be in relationship with each other. It’s the subtleties of authentic relationships and people that make Broken English such a powerful film.
What is delightfully refreshing in Broken English and the films of several other female writer/directors is that life in all of its beauty and humanity is offered to the viewer in a realistic yet honoring manner. Cassavetes joins the ranks of female filmmakers like Nicole Holofcener, Mira Nair, and Deepa Mehta who bring real and challenging stories that are subtle yet beautiful in their portrayals of the life, hardships, and specific issues that face women in relationships. Nora is not written off so easily as an idealized or deranged image of womanhood reminding us that women are not just the false idols we are used to seeing on screen. Most women I know struggle with the very same self-hatred and depression that is portrayed in Nora. Either they are the women who meet men but always the wrong ones or the women who never meet anyone. They are not crazy or glitzy but real, incredible, and striking women who struggle with the overwhelming pressure to be something else instead of being allowed the freedom to be themselves. "Sometimes in life you feel so much pain, and all this stuff is available to you and kind of socially acceptable to do, so you completely overmedicate yourself just so you can tune out for five minutes from the constant buzzing of nightmare feelings in yourself."[iii] It is these buzzing nightmare feelings, as Cassavetes describes it, as well as the beautiful pieces that make a whole, lovely, and flawed human being. Allowing yourself to be human takes a lot of courage, as a woman one must forage new paths and write new signs like the Dar Williams’ quote at the beginning of this review speaks of doing. Sometimes it is easier to just self-medicate, at least for a while. Yet at some point one has to choose either self-medication to avoid facing the heartbreak of continually desiring more, or like Nora choose to find your own path and yourself. This is the importance and value of a film like Broken English - that we all (especially women) are free to choose a different path, one where we are released to be our messy and wonderful selves.

[i] Williams, Dar, “Your Ageing Well” The Honesty Room, Burning Fields Music, 1993
[ii] The author would like to remind the reader that while it does tend towards shallow and surface topics, Sex and the City does, by its season finale in 2004, grow into a pop-cultural icon that offers the viewer the value and need of strong relationships between women friends, but in regard to men, sex and romantic relationships it really is a false image.
[iii] Lewis, Amanda, quoting Zoë Cassavetes in, “Language of The Wounded”, Washington Times, 7/20/2007,

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