One of the year's best films, Pedro Almodóvar's magnificent new work Bad Education is also the most difficult to review. I stepped gingerly around the trap-door narratives of The Village and House of Flying Daggers to avoid the spoiler mines, but how the fuck do I describe the Russian-doll structure of an artist's shifting mind? At the risk of sounding like Godard talking about Nicholas Ray, I must ask what's the point of writing that a shot of dolled-up Gael García Bernal walking into a church is beautiful, when the words ultimately fail to convey the beauty -- that is, the complexity of feelings (the character's, the director's, the critic's) -- evoked by the shot. For, like the similarly, elusively beautiful Kill Bill movies and The Dreamers (or Mulholland Drive and Femme Fatale), the film is to be seen (and, perhaps more importantly, felt) not as a streamlined "plot" but a deluge of indelible images sailing straight to the unconscious, emotions made visual, cinema made transcendental.
I suppose the best way to delve into the quicksand plot is to jump in, like getting in a cold swimming pool. In 1980, Ignacio (Bernal) walks into the office of Enrique (Fele Martínez), an upstart filmmaker whose creative slump has him clipping tabloid articles for project ideas (the latest deals with a frozen-dead motorcycle rider). The two haven't seen each other since their days as students in a Catholic school during the '60s, when they experimented with sex and fell in love before being separated by jealous Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who was abusing Ignacio. Now a struggling performer dubbed Ángel, the grown Ignacio has huddled their experiences into a screenplay (La Visita), with the juiciest role written for himself as Zahara, a flaming transsexual diva extorting revenge from their molesting padre via implacable blackmail.
That's just the setup, or, rather, the launchpad. In between scenes of Ignacio pitching his idea and falling on his old chum's casting couch, there are 1977 sequences following him as bewigged, lipsticked, high-heeled Zahara, doing nightclub drag acts, picking up hunky fans (including a woozy Enrique, who dozes off mid-blowjob without recognizing him) and closing in on Father Manolo. Flashbacks? Subjective fantasy? Bits from his script acted out for the director's camera? I'd hate myself in the morning for having to dust off the ancient "nothing-is-what-it-seems" chestnut, but it suffices to say that Almodóvar's already dizzy narrative piles on yet another layer in a stunning moment of truth-shuffling that not only parachutes the real Father Manolo (now called Berenguer, and played by Lluís Homar) into the equation, but also foregrounds the artistic manipulation of reality that is at the heart of the film, and of filmmaking.
Bad Education reintroduces an element that's been largely missing from Almodóvar's recent humanistic crowd-pleasers such as All About My Mother and Talk to Her: danger. The transgressive sexualization of Matador, Law of Desire and Kika again emerges in the unbridled desire seeping into the zesty queer trysts, and most notably in the filmmaker's eroticization of Bernal. The actor's first appearance as Zahara, lip-synching "Quizás, Quizás, Quizás" in the limelight of the drag club, is (there's no other word for it) ravishing -- Almodóvar underscores the polymorphous nature of desire by making the character, in his various guises, a thoroughly convincing creature of carnal provocation and yearning. (Almodóvar has spoken of the actor as his own Julia Roberts.) Bernal's performance, blurring the boundaries between the allure of femininity and masculinity, is a far more subversive (hence, political) one than his glam Che Guevara in the toothless Motorcycle Diaries.
Yet the film's sexuality is no mere titillation, but an offshoot of its throbbing emotionalism. The characters' unchained sexual appetites soothe aching personalities, many of which are fractured by past oppression, the one certified villain of Almodóvar's generously accepting universe. In the picture's most lyrical sequence, young Ignacio (Nacho Pérez) is made to sing "Moon River," the theme from Almodóvar fave Breakfast at Tiffany's, in Spanish to Father Manolo during a school camping trip, with the boy's eerie soprano voice reverberating like a long-recalled memory suddenly shattered by the older man's advances -- fleeing, Ignacio trips and falls, his face in close-up freeze-frames and cracks, a literalization of one of the film's many emotional ruptures. (Starting with the mock-Saul Bass collage of the credits, there are ripped posters, obscured framing, and shredded psyches throughout.) Even then, however, Almodóvar never turns Father Manolo into a facile monster -- like the nuns in Dark Habits, the film criticizes not religion but the suppression of desire and emotion that turns them destructive.
The jagged opening credits suggest Psycho, but the Hitchcock film that haunts Bad Education is Vertigo. That masterpiece's influence is palpable here in the reflexivity of the lush narrative acrobatics, but above all in the feeling of the obsession of desire that searches for (and destroys) love. Like Vertigo's Madeleine/Judy trope, the personality split is complexly realized, so that Bernal's Ángel/Ignacio/Zahara triptych reveals multiple psyches not so much warring with each other as springing from and enriching each other, different variations of the same spirit vying for expression. The drama takes place just as much within the characters as between them, and between the characters and the filmmaker who, having given them blood, is just as intensely involved in the action. Almodóvar's melancholy nostalgia, ultimately as wrenching as Wong Kar-wai's, derives from an awareness of the evanescence of rapture that, like memories, he can only hope to capture through art.
The rapture and pain of passion are what make the emotions beneath the Demy-via-Fassbinder colors of the surface so affecting, and the film, from the disorientating flashes in time to its Double Indemnity third movement and into its denouement, so moving. Almodóvar, from his grungier days as a Castilian John Waters to the international, Oscar-garlanded glow of his mature work, has always been fascinated by stylistic artifice and emotional truth, and in Bad Education these impulses achieve a new peak. It is perhaps only now in middle-age that the director can confront an aspect that Almodóvar has never addressed before, though its shadow has constantly been felt throughout his oeuvre -- the Spain of Franco, whose oppression pervades the feelings of the characters and imbues their longing with an added insurrective spirit. (The boys' mutual jerking during a matinee attendance of Una Mujer bleeds inquiring libido into political rebellion.) It may leave the characters' stability in ashes, but to Almodóvar suppressing them is nothing less than inhuman. Passion leads to liberation, is liberation.