Bad Education (La mala educación) (2004)

“I wanted to tell you a few things, some secrets.” No surprise, Pedro Almodóvar’s commentary is as seductive as his filmmaking. And while his movies typically provide some sort of education, Bad Education tweaks the lesson just enough so that it doesn’t turn out to be what you expect.

After noting that his opening credits sequence evokes a strangely conventional sort of suspense, with Alberto Iglesias’ music going so far as to recall Bernard Hermann’s for Hitchcock, the director then lays out a seemingly simple, if exceedingly clever, scheme. He (Almodóvar) will tell the story of the director within the film, Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez), who will then tell his story, in the same way. This doubled frame suggests a relationship between character and creator, which Almodóvar both acknowledges and eludes in the first scene: “Enrique does things that I tend to do, or vice versa. I don’t know.”

At the same time, the narrative is precise, possessing what Almodóvar calls “great symmetry.” The film leads viewers through a tangle of mistaken identities and gender performances (and the DVD, in addition to the commentary track, includes two brief extras, a one-minute making-of montage and excellent deleted scenes). “We have our protagonist [Enrique] looking for a story, a door is opened, and in comes someone who most likely has a story in him. And in the end, we see another door, with both of these two characters.”

The character with “the story in him” is Ignacio Rodríguez (Gael García Bernal), who arrived at Enrique’s office to ask for a role in his new project Ignacio, now calling himself Ángel, happens to have a project that would be perfect, a screenplay based on his own experiences. Enrique is skeptical, but also secretly intrigued; so while he all but blows off his visitor (in part a performance for his judgmental assistant), he also reads the story Ignacio has left with him, titled, “The Visit.” (Almodóvar recalls that he considered calling the film “Visits,” for it breaks down into a series of encounters between characters involving power imbalances and deceptions: “The power can be switched from one side of the table or the other, depending on the situation.”)

In love with Enrique when they were students in Catholic school during the 1960s, Ignacio has since endured much tragedy, his tale excessive in ways that will be familiar to Almodóvar aficionados. As Enrique recalls their past, Ignacio was expelled from school by Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho), in order that he might keep Enrique’s youthful charms for himself. Enrique’s memories are understandably distorted, weaved into the story he’s reading and the anger he feels toward the priest, who so dominated the boy’s sexual awakening. This film creates a mix of responses (yours, the boy’s, the corrupting adult’s), most acutely rendered in one of a memorable moments: Manolo forces Enrique the student to sing “Moon River” while watching other, remote, and safely happy students swim (these joyous images, Almodóvar says, are allusive: “Everything I wanted to convey I didn’t want to be obvious so I had to hide the camera, to suggest to the viewer what was happening without showing it, because the subject matter was so delicate, because the actors in the scene are children, and therefore I had to be very careful”). “I’m longing to know what is hidden in the dark,” Enrique reads. As the camera pulls out, the Father moves in. “I run off,” he reads on, and the child stops suddenly, his head literally split in half, a stunning image of the child’s fear and betrayal.

This trauma, hidden and fearsome, Ignacio asserts, has shaped his life as well as his script, which reveals his apparent revenge on the priest, twisted through blackmail, transvestism, and violence. As he recalls his various descents (“I sold myself for the first time in that sacristy to avoid Enrique being expelled”) Ignacio’s story includes imagined second acts, after the expulsion and the abuse, such that the three principals are reunited. Ignacio is here a junkie and drag queen (impersonating movie star Sara Montiel, whom Almodóvar takes as a model for the drag shows, by Ignacio as well as his/her friend, Paca/Pacquito [Javier Cámara, who starred in Talk to Her in 2002]).

Ignacio/Ángel goes on to seduce Enrique as well as the priest. Enrique does his best to resist his former classmate’s entreaties, but finds himself drawn into the story, as he hears it, as Ángel tells it, and as they both interpret, massage, and seem to need it. “There’s a good movie in this story,” muses Enrique. Ángel gradually insinuates himself into Enrique’s life, visiting him at his home, sitting by the pool to smoke cigarettes (Almodóvar notes, “Ángel has calculated everything, to the amount of pubic hair he is showing”). Bad Education‘s own detailed and elaborate structure (beautifully shot by cinematographer José Luis Alcaine) leads you through both men’s memories, deceptions, and reconstructions, interlocking as temporal dislocations, flashbacks within flashbacks, and fictions (say, the film in production, with Ignacio playing himself, in drag) within fictions. As Enrique works to sort it out, yet another man appears on the scene, one Mr. Berenguer (Lluis Homar), who claims to be Father Manolo, defrocked, with news concerning Ignacio’s terrible fate.

All this as Enrique’s film, starring Ángel (after much convincing and some blackmailing) goes into production, and the projected, recreated image on set becomes as seductive and visceral as any so-called real experience (“You disconcert me,” Enrique tells his star). As always in Almodóvar, the play of identities concerns desires as well, and questions about how such desires are formed. Where Enrique and Ignacio shared a mutual as children, they are less sure now as to reasons for their interests in one another, as their seemingly “innocent” desire was so profoundly disrupted, even tainted.

At the same time, they long for resolution, for a way to bring their various performances, ambitions, and memories into some sort of coherent, if insistently complicated, interrelation. But their recollections and their desires compete, at last, rather than coincide. There can be no “good education,” only endurance and elucidation. Bad Education is finally more about reading than remembering, the ways that we interpret events and delude ourselves in order to survive.