Monday, February 8, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Broken English (2007)

I can't think of another movie where a woman's desperate need for a relationship is dealt with both comically and painfully quite like Zoe Cassavetes’ Broken English. There is probably no other actress, either, better than Parker Posey who could delicately negotiate the shifting mood swings that such anxiety inspires. Broken English, which had a very limited release in 2007, isn’t simply about the neurotic funk of being lonely. It’s about an attractive and intelligent woman whose ability to find a passionate and compatible relationship gets impaired by her rash decisions to mate. Cassavetes, who is the daughter of the late actor/director John Cassavetes, has definitely inherited her father’s love of actors but (thankfully) without imposing all his heavy-spirited psycho-dramatics on the picture. Broken English comes closest to invoking the suffused moods of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, or maybe Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (to which Cassavetes pays tribute here).

Posey plays Nora Wilder who works for a boutique hotel in the area of guest-services. It’s an apt job given that she is always looking after everyone else’s needs but her own. After setting up her best friend Audrey (Drea de Matteo, of The Sopranos) with the man she ultimately marries, Nora wonders whether she will ever find Mr. Right for herself. Continually fueled by her anxiety and pressed on by her mom (Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’ real mother) to find a man, Parker stumbles from one painful encounter to the next. But Cassavetes doesn’t belabour Nora’s misery and neither does Posey. Both women recognize that matters of the heart are as much absurdly comic as they are tragic.

Parker Posey in Broken English
One night at a party, Nora meets Julien (Melvil Poupaud), an attractive, but aggressively amorous Parisian, who initially alienates her. But his persistence is also tempered by a tenderness that she ultimately finds appealing. Poupaud portrays Julien as if he’s imagining himself being Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s Breathless. (Like Belmondo, he proudly wears a fedora on back of his head while continually nursing a cigarette.) As their romance tentatively unfolds, we see how Nora comes to realize that she has never allowed herself to recognize what she wants out of a relationship. Julien though knows immediately why he desires her, but his innate decency won’t allow him to dominate. He wants her to come around on her own terms.

Parker Posey and Melvil Poupaud
Posey and Poupaud make the characters endlessly appealing. The couple are continually feeling out the emotional terrain that they uncover in each other – which, for Nora, is sometimes the utter fear of what she’s getting into. Eventually, Julien wants Nora to join him in Paris, but she can’t make the spontaneous decision to leave. Ultimately, with her friend Audrey in tow, Nora takes the leap to find him. But finding Julien turns out not to be as easy as desiring him.

While Broken English doesn’t really represent any radical departure in moviemaking, the subtle shifts in dramatic texture help it transcend becoming merely a traditional genre piece. In the past, Parker Posey has portrayed a compelling cast of fascinating personalities in American independent pictures, but I don’t think she’s had a role that has provided for her as much range as she shows here. Zoe Cassavetes is obviously a director to watch. She has a compelling interest in letting a story find its own meaning rather than imposing meaning on it. Broken English is about the ways that communication in romance can end up frayed and confused, but the film finds a fresh romantic spirit that mends the pieces.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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