A somewhat elliptical family drama from Pablo Larraín, Ema tells the story of a young woman who returned a child she adopted, feels the loss deeply, and wants to get him back. We discuss the central performances from Mariana Di Girolamo and Gael García Bernal, how their characters throw the most painful insults at each other but remain so obviously in love, Ema’s sexual fluidity and willingness to use sex as a tool, the poetic opening movement to the film including the astonishing on-stage, colour-shifting Sun, and whether Ema’s pain is as apparent as we’d like.
In his beautiful and illuminating Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections and Other Obsessions, Guillermo del Toro writes, ’50 percent of storytelling (in movies) is “eye protein,” which is very different than eye candy. They look the same to the untrained eye, but they are fundamentally different’. One could argue that there are few directors who have provided as much ‘eye protein’ as Pedro Almodóvar: Minnelli, Preminger, Nicholas Ray, Del Toro himself, perhaps even others. But it’s hard to think of one who’s given us more. Yet, if that’s the case, why aren’t we more attentive to it?; why don’t we, so to speak, visually chew on that protein and let its nutrients feed and nurture whatever arguments we make on the film to a greater extent than we do now?
For example, on its initial release, there was a lot of debate as to whether and to what extent La mala educación/ Bad Education was autobiographical. Javier Royos, whilst focusing on the screenplay, writes in Cinemania that Bad Education is a film noir ‘born as a rebel yell against something Almodóvar knew from his own experience’. Jonathan Holland’s review in Variety, the trade magazine, highlighted the use of autobiographical material: ‘Pedro Almodóvar’s long-gestated, instantly identifiable Bad Education’ welds autobiographical matter relating to his troubled religious education into a classic noir structure, repping a generic shift from the classy, emotionally involving mellers that have dominated his recent output.’
There’s something interesting in that juxtaposition of the autobiographical and genre as genre is a setting for and horizon of expectations for the telling of that personal story; and, over time, as the story gets expanded, there’s a shift in the choice of genre Almodóvar finds appropriate to its telling: we first encountered the themes and a rough sketch of the characters in Bad Education almost twenty years earlier in La ley del deseo/ The Law of Desire (1987) but in melodramatic form and with more than a dash of comedy. That film too focused on a film director who was gay, who had made films in the early 80s and was part of the Movida that Bad Education also references. It was the film that inaugurated, Almodóvar’s production company, El Deseo, transformed in Bad Education into El Hazar, thus transmuting desire into chance, and, most importantly, it featured a moment in which Tina (Carmen Maura) walks into a church remembering all the times she’d ‘jerked off’ there when she was a boy only to come face to face with the priest she’d had sexual relations with as a child:
‘You remind me of an old pupil. He used to sing in the choir, too’ says the priest.
‘Father Constantino, it is I.’
‘How you’ve changed
‘Self-expression’ was considered an important criterion when evaluating Almodóvar’s authorship in the 1980s. For example, the press in Madrid had long recognized a gay sensibility in Almodovar’s films, even taunting him about not giving it full expression. ‘In the end he’s not prepared to reveal more…directly through (his) own sexuality’, wrote Carlos Benítez Gonzalez in 5 Dias (1982). It was seen as gay work by a director who had not formally come out; and there’s an unpleasant aspect to such comments, to such attempts to drag him out of the, or at least a, closet; as if the ‘coming out’ they sought was not so that his self-expression would be truer or deeper but so that he’d be more vulnerable to attack in what remained a deeply homophobic culture.
The fact that Almodóvar would not put homosexuality, or let’s be more explicit, homosexual characters, at the centre of his films was seen as a block to his self-expression. In turn, this was interpreted as a reason why his films were not those of a true auteur. It’s difficult today to look at films like What Have I Done to Deserve This or Labyrinth of Passion and not see them as key exemplars of gay culture. But Spanish critics then were searching for a more autobiographical form of self-expression. They wanted homosexual stories in a plot about homosexuality. Basically, they wanted him to out himself, even if only via a fictional alter-ego, on film. That, it seems to me, is the ‘self-expression’ they wanted from him.
When La ley was released, Pedro Crespo (1987) titled his review in ABC , ‘La ley del deseo unblocks the career of Pedro Almodóvar’. In the text he added that the world depicted in La Ley was relatively similar to (Almodóvar’s) own’. Thus, it’s not that Law of Desire is any more camp or has any less ‘gay sensibility’ than previous films like Dark Hideout/ Entre tinieblas (1983) or What Have I Done to Deserve This?/ Qué he hecho yo para merezer esto? (1984)that ‘unblocks’, it’s that critics are overly focusing on the story rather than on its telling; and urging him to tell stories about himself. Thus this pressing for the intimate, the personal, the autobiographical — and the insistence on its verification — is something that runs through critical responses to Almodóvar’s work.
So now that we’ve established why this concern with the autobiographical in Almodóvar’s oeuvre, is Almodóvar’s Bad Education autobiographical? According to Jordi Costa in Fotogramas, ‘it’s autobiographical and it isn’t: the game of masks is written into its DNA’. In another note, I would like to explore further this game of masks Costa refers to, how most characters are split into two or three different personas in the film, how some characters pass for others, how the film like any noir, whilst not cheating, guides us through false corridors, and how the labyrinthine narration moves through the perspective of different characters writing a story, reading it, seeing at as a film, remembering. The story is told through masterfully narrated fragments of point-of-view on story, film and memory. Bad Education is a film that wants to tell but doesn’t quite want us to know, wants to show but wants us to work at that seeing, it doesn’t want us to easily come to a fuller understanding.
In Bad Education, as they’ve set in motion the murder of Ignacio (Francisco Boira), Juan (Gaél García Bernal), who we’ve already seen in the guises of Ángel, Ignacio and Zahara, walks out of a cinema during ‘film noir week’ with Señor Berenguer (Lluís Homar), previously and fictionally Father Manolo, as the latter says ‘it seems all the films talk about us’. The camera then lingers on posters of Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Renoir’s La bête humaine (1938)and Marcel Carné’s Thérèse Raquin (1953). Those films definitely have a lot to say about Ángel and Señor Berenguer as characters in the narrative and about Almodóvar’s ongoing conversation with a history of cinema in general and noir in particular. But does Bad Education have anything to tell us about Almodóvar other than in the general sense that ‘all films speak about us’ or ‘all of Almodóvar’s films are an expression, however partial, of his consciousness’?
In the pressbook for the film, Almodóvar writes, ‘La mala educación’ is a very intimate film. It’s not exactly auto-biographic – i.e., it’s not the story of my life in school, nor my education in the early years of ‘la movida’, even though these are the two backgrounds in which the argument (sic) is set (1964 and 1980, with a stop in 1977).
What Almodóvar says in the film does not exactly contradict what he says in the press-book but neither is it identical to it. The very last shot of the credit sequence (see image capture 1-a above) ends with ‘written and directed’ by Pedro Almodóvar. The very first shot of the narrative of Bad Education proper starts with a close-up of a framed picture saying ‘written and directed by Enrique Goded’ (see image capture 1-b above). The cut separating each of those credits thus also links them, particularly since there is the same image of airplanes and stewardesses in the background. Now this could be an accident or a mere conceit except we return to it at the end of the film but in reverse order. The last shot of the narrative of Bad Education is a still image telling us what happened to Enrique Goded after this murderous incident of filmmaking and passion; the title informs us that ‘Enrique Goded is still making films with the same passion’(see image capture 1-c above); then the camera zooms in so close to the word passion that it dissolves (see image capture 1-d) and the start of the end credits begins with ‘written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar’ (See image capture 1-e). Enrique Goded and Pedro Almodovar are explicitely linked at the beginning and at the end; and in the end, linked above all, but perhaps not only by, a passion for cinema.
If the film seems to be saying that Enrique Goded is much more Pedro Almodóvar than the director himself will publicly admit to, then very first image points to another discussion of the autobiographical and that is in relation to the self-referentiality of the development of the oeuvre itself. Doesn’t that credit of Goded’s (refer back to 1-b above), which is also the background for the credit to Almodovar (1-a) also remind you of the poster for I’m So Excited (see below)? And doesn’t it also refer to ‘Girls and Suitcases’, the project that eventually turned into Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) but that is referred to explicitly as ‘Girls and Suitcases’ in Broken Embraces (2009)?
One image attributed to Enrique Goded can thus bring up a whole web of links, cross-referenced, to Almodóvar’s oeuvre that becomes an autobiography on film, not only of Almodóvar but of our own experience and interactions with his work. His filmic autobiography becomes in turn part of a memory of experiences that make up little stories we tell ourselves and others that are in turn transformed into a narrative, a changing one, of who that self is. At least, it does if we pay attention to that eye protein and chew on it.