Bad Education
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Sony Pictures Classics

Pedro Almodóvar is Spain’s preeminent filmmaker and one of the heroes of the European struggle against Hollywood hegemony. An out gay artist, Almodóvar’s stock-in-trade is sexual subversion. His first feature film, Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del monton (in English, Pepi, Luci, Bom, and Other Girls on the Heap), released in 1980, became The Rocky Horror Picture Show of Spain. Originally titled General Erections, the film features a party scene in which Almodóvar himself organizes and participates in a measure-the-erections competition. One can understand how Pepi achieved cult status in post-Franco Madrid, but it would have been difficult to predict that this ribald production would launch the career that would save the moribund Spanish film industry.

Over the past two decades Almodóvar has moved from the counterculture to the mainstream. Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 1988) was a great critical and commercial success for him. Then after stumbling for a decade, he turned inward; the whole tone and pace of his films changed, and suddenly he was back at the top of his game. Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother, 1999) earned the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and many critics believe that Hable con ella (Talk to Her, 2002) also deserved that prize, but the Spanish film committee did not nominate it. In an unusual gesture of respect that year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences reached out and awarded Almodóvar the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Almodóvar’s success says something about the willingness of contemporary film audiences to accept the foregrounding of homoerotic and gender-bending themes. Transsexuals, feminized men, and masculinized women people his films. And Almodóvar has gone much further than Hollywood dares in portraying the sheer erotic joy of sexual variation. His films have not been without controversy; he has thumbed his nose both at written and unwritten laws that establish the category of transgression. Almodóvar has said that to portray transgression “isn’t my aim, for it implies the kind of respect and acceptance of the law I’m incapable of.”

Talk to Her is typical of Almodóvar’s antinomianism. Like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1, it depicts a man having sex with a woman in a coma. Tarantino’s film graphically portrays the necrophilic rape, and the victim (played by Uma Thurman) exacts the violent revenge that American audiences have come to expect. Almodóvar’s necrophiliac is a benign male nurse who takes loving care of his comatose woman patient. He impregnates her in a scene Almodóvar helps us to imagine by creating a film within a film. In it a man takes a shrinking pill and crawls into the cavernous passage of his wife’s vagina. Childbirth awakens the patient from her four-year coma. Only if you can suspend the written and unwritten laws of rape can you appreciate what has happened as a miracle.

The unstated premise of Almodóvar’s hedonist philosophy of no transgressions is that there are no consequences, and therefore the mood of his films has been manic denial. Now Almodóvar is getting real. His latest film, La mala educación (Bad Education) was given the honor of opening this year’s Cannes Film Festival. With its almost total lack of hilarity, Bad Education is a radical departure for Almodóvar, who has always kept faith with eros and hedonism despite his skepticism about God and law. Even though he is still trading in sexual subversion, Bad Education presents a film-noir, dog-eat-dog world of greed and betrayal in which no one can be trusted.

Almodóvar says that he worked on the screenplay of Bad Education for almost ten years and that he had to finish it before it turned into an obsession. Obsession or not, it is the real coming-out story of a man who has been out of the closet for most of his life. Bad Education demands a great deal from its audience both because the script is an intricate postmodern cycle of interrupting narratives and because the homoerotic elements so directly challenge the audience. For those who loved the Almodóvar for whom incest was a joke, not a taboo, Bad Education will be a disappointment. When and if it comes to America at the end of the year it will certainly raise hackles. But if film is to be judged as an art form, Bad Education is Almodóvar’s most important work, with far more complex characters and sophisticated narrative than his other films. With it, he establishes himself as a talent to rival Spain’s legendary filmmaker Luis Buñuel.

At least from this side of the Atlantic, Buñuel and Almodóvar both seem as Spanish as the tango, the bullfight, and Gaudí’s La Sagrada Familia cathedral. But Buñuel was always political, and Almodóvar has insisted that he speaks for the apolitical post-Franco generation. Buñuel’s politics, like those of many Europeans of his generation, were rooted in Marx, and his surrealism, the source of his creativity, was rooted in Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.

Buñuel was a friend of Salvador Dalí, and in the 1920s they collaborated on a screenplay for a film by practicing a version of psychoanalysis in which each told the other his dreams and fantasies. Buñuel shot the film without any attempt to tie the scenes together into a narrative. The film, Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog), like Dali’s paintings of that era, summons from the unconscious oneiric images weighty with a mysterious significance that would require an interpreter to reveal. The film, which would become a classic, contains an unforgettable, horrifying scene in which a young woman’s eyeball is repeatedly slashed with a razor—the beginning and perhaps the apotheosis of the aesthetic of sadism in film. It is impossible to know out of whose unconscious this scene came, but in truth their surrealism was less about personal revelation than the discovery of a psychological dimension of reality that defied objectivity.

Buñuel continued making iconoclastic films for four more decades—some of the best in his later years. Films like Le journal d’une femme de chambre (The Diary of a Chambermaid) linked sexual aberration and social injustice. The eruption of the sexual unconscious in everyday life was his surrealist version of sexual politics, an attack on the repressive categories of middle-class morality. The like-minded Henry Miller wrote, “They call Buñuel everything: traitor, anarchist, pervert, defamer, iconoclast. But lunatic they do not call him. It is true it is lunacy he portrays, but it is not his lunacy . . . this is the lunacy of civilization.”

Unlike Buñuel, the lunacy Almodóvar portrays is his own, and also unlike Buñuel he never sits in judgment of his lunatics. Almodóvar says his filmmaking is not a posture but the way he understands the world.

Almodóvar comes from a poor family; he had no university education, no film-school training, and no apprenticeship. He likes to describe himself in these years as an “astronaut in the court of King Arthur.” He realized early on that he was different from other children and was aware even before puberty that he had a gay sensibility. The movie theater became a refuge for the boy, and he began to read films through that sensibility. He identified with the strong women—Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn—and worshiped the vulnerable victims, most of all Marilyn Monroe. Freud famously said that dreams were the royal road to the unconscious; perhaps the movies offer another way to get there. At least for Alomodovar his own unconscious desires were found hidden in the subtexts of the movies.

Almodóvar left his small village in the region of La Mancha as a small boy and moved to Madrid as a young teenager in the 1960s. As he tells the story, evidence of the iron fist of Franco’s fascism was everywhere. But below the surface Spain’s counterculture was seething, and Almodóvar plunged into it. Although it is difficult to sort out the chronology, it seems that Almodóvar tried his hand at all of the skills he would use as a filmmaker. He wrote for underground newspapers and adult comic books. He created a popular cartoon character—Patty Diphusa, a nymphomaniac—and wrote her sexual confessions under her name. He joined a theater group. He performed as a drag queen in a punk-rock group, Almodóvar and McNamara. (Fanny McNamara would appear in Almodóvar’s Laberinto de pasiones [Labyrinth of Passion] as a drag queen making love to an electric drill. Together they wrote the song “Suck it to Me,” which is featured in the same film.)

Because Franco had closed the only film school, Almodóvar haunted the Madrid movie houses as he had since his childhood and learned his trade by watching. In his first real venture into filmmaking, he bought an 8mm camera and began shooting short, silent films, which he would show in underground clubs in Madrid and Barcelona. Almodóvar would improvise the performance as he went along, and these improvisations had the quality of a happening, in which the reactions of the audience were part of the show. He earned an underground following during the 1970s, from which he emerged as the leading light of the Madrid movida, all the while supporting himself with a day job at the national telephone company, a job that exposed him to the middle-class hypocrisy he would satirize in his films. Unlike the many experimental filmmakers of that period who tried to get away from narrative, Almodóvar was always a storyteller; his stories bubble up like free associations shared with an audience instead of an analyst.

Almodóvar belongs to a generation that no longer needs Freud to find its way into the unconscious. Nothing is repressed. Free association is art, and sex is pleasure without consequences: Freud’s polymorphous perverse is utopia and gets better with drugs and alcohol. One of Almodóvar’s most revealing films, Dos putas (Two Whores), came from that utopian unconscious. The ten-minute film is about a prostitute who complains that since the hippies are giving sex away she has no customers. A good fairy appears, waves a magic wand, and customers start lining up. Another prostitute tries to horn in on her customers, a catfight ensues, the good fairy waves the wand again, and the two prostitutes fall in love and discover they have no need for men. The male customers complain, so the good fairy waves the wand yet again, the male customers find love with each other, and everyone lives happily ever after.

One might think that a man who dreams up such stories would be the patron saint of the American gay and lesbian community. Almodóvar acknowledges that those “modern audiences” in America discovered him, but his anarchic imagination refuses to bow to their unwritten laws or their political agenda. Consider Labyrinth of Passion, one of his daffiest comedies. It stars a nymphomaniac, Sexilia, who is in therapy with a ridiculous Lacanian psychoanalyst. She is cured of her nymphomania not by her therapist but by a night of incredible sex with the Shah of Iran’s son, a homosexual who is living incognito in Madrid. This couple finds old-fashioned boy-girl love at the end of their twisted rainbow. Almodóvar’s doctrinaire gay critics, who seemed to miss the humor entirely, complained that Almodóvar had renounced homosexuality.

It is worth mentioning that Almodóvar’s capacious embrace of eros in all its forms includes a strange vision of love that is revealed in several of his films as close, if not identical, to what psychiatrists call erotomania. An extreme example is enacted in ¡Atame! (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, 1990). Ricky, played by Antonio Banderas, is in love with a porn star who is trying to become a legitimate actress. Just released from a mental hospital, Banderas kidnaps her, ties her to a bed, tries to make her love him by the force of his will, and succeeds. This is the mad love of A Midsummer Night’s Dream but without a magic potion.

Almodóvar’s La ley del deseo (The Law of Desire, 1987), the film he pairs with Bad Education, is widely credited with having saved the collapsing Spanish film industry. When it first appeared, one critic described it as “an outrageous melodrama featuring homosexual and transsexual protagonists in a sadomasochistic triangle involving incest, murder, and suicide and including several sexually explicit homoerotic love scenes.” Viewing The Law of Desire for the first time in 2004, I found myself agreeing and wondering how such a raw, disturbing, and poorly made film could have done so much for the industry. But it can be said that The Law of Desire is unforgettable.

Unlike his Hollywood colleagues, who typically present gays as victims, Almodóvar’s gay men are on the make. In The Law of Desire and Bad Education, the celebrated but love-lorn director is looking for an attractive young man (a straight man is acceptable) who is willing to submit to anal intercourse. The Law of Desire was made at a time when gay men knew that unprotected anal sex carried the greatest risk of HIV infection. The Law of Desire’s portrayal of anarchic sexuality without consequences seemed to mock such concerns; it privileges the erotic pleasure of anal sex.

Pauline Kael’s positive review was front-page news in Spain. She described the film as beginning “with a metaphor of movie making—an autoerotic film is being shot in a studio.” Perhaps she was euphemizing for her New Yorker readers, but the metaphor is a little more complex and convoluted than Kael allows.

An imperious male off-camera voice orders a young man to undress slowly, kiss his own lips in the mirror, caress his anus, position himself for anal intercourse, and then masturbate. The off-camera voice might be a filmmaker or a voyeuristic client who has brought a male prostitute to his hotel. He orders the young man not to look at him either because as client or director this would ruin the effect he wants to achieve. As the young man becomes more excited the off-camera voice orders him to beg to be penetrated. As the sexual moment intensifies, Almodóvar briefly cuts to two older men who are sitting by the camera. Now we recognize this place not as a hotel room but as a film studio. The men are either caught up in the erotic experience or supplying sound effects—perhaps both—because they are gasping and groaning. The climax comes, the off-camera voice compliments the performance, a hand drops cash on the bedside table, the naked young man counts it and smiles as the film within the film reaches its conclusion, and the audience leaves the studio.

Lest those of us watching The Law of Desire miss the autoerotic impact, we are shown a virile, young Ricky so aroused by the performance that he rushes directly to the men’s room and in a seeming frenzy masturbates and begs to be fucked. There is, I take it, something didactic about Almodóvar’s presentation of the passionate excitement of homoerotic submission. So I cannot agree with Kael that this is only an amusing metaphor for moviemaking. Certainly for movie-watching it is an exercise in the stability of one’s own eroticism and challenges the line between disgust and desire. Almodóvar is sometimes funny and sometimes disturbing, but as the discordant reactions to this scene demonstrate, members of the audience may not agree on which is which. In the rest of the film, Ricky (who is straight) goes home with the director and is introduced to anal sex. By the next morning he has become a crazed, possessive lover determined to have the director all to himself. He murders his rival, but the power of his midsummer night’s madness casts its spell on the director. Surrounded by soldiers who have granted them one last hour, the director and Ricky have incredible sex. It is again a triumph of eros, even though it must end with Ricky’s suicide. For Kael, the love triangle’s ending in murder struck a sour note. But it seems to me that it is as crucial to the film as the first scene; it is another demonstration of the rule of desire and Almodóvar’s exploration of erotomania as real love. The film is even more bizarre and extreme than my description of it, and yet Almodóvar’s magical compassion redeems all his characters.

Despite what I think of as the manic denial of his early films, Almodóvar is one of the great psychologists of modern cinema. Like Nabokov, whose Lolita is an important influence on Bad Education, he was determined to refute and ridicule any psychoanalytic explanation of sexual preference. The protagonists in his early films were caricatures, and Almodóvar insisted that his actors should never play their parts in the “method” style of Hollywood. He wanted the audience always to be aware that the actor was acting a part. He chose a woman, Carmen Maura, to play the transsexual man in The Law of Desire, and he instructed her to imitate a man imitating a woman in acting the part. He cast Bibi Andersen—not Bergman’s Bibi but an actual transvestite—as Maura’s female partner. What he achieves in this fashion isa dissection of the categories of gender that would astonish Freud and make Foucault proud. But he does not construct a narrative that provides a believable history of the individual’s character. Almodóvar turned his attention to this project in All About My Mother and continues it in Bad Education.

Bad Education uses all the elements and directorial devices of The Law of Desire but with greater seriousness and to powerful effect. The director character in this film, Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez) is lonely and creatively blocked. Into his life comes a man claiming to be his first love from their days at Catholic school. The man claims to have written a screenplay based on their childhood experience. The director suspects something is amiss. He has poignant memories of his first love, Ignacio, and this man does not seem to be that person. The imposter, a would-be actor who now insists on being called by the stage name Angel, is shown the door. But the director reads his screenplay, appropriately called The Visit. As he does, the first version of the story is enacted in his mind.

The characters in Bad Education–though more richly developed than in his earlier films—are standard for Almodóvar: a priest in love with his beautiful altar boy, a gay film director who is creatively blocked and looking for plot lines in the tabloids, a young actor on the make who is impersonating his gay brother, and the brother himself, a drug addict with breast implants who longs for the expensive surgery that will make “her” beautiful. Almodóvar says the film is deeply personal but not directly autobiographical. One of Freud’s disciples suggested that in dream interpretation the analyst should treat every character in the dream as a projection of the patient’s self. That may not be true of dreams but it seems to apply to Almodóvar’s films. It is easy to believe that the priest, the boy, the director, the aspiring actor, and the transsexual are all Almodóvar’s alter egos.

Critics at Cannes were quick to notice that the priest in Bad Education is not just a predatory pedophile: he “loves” the altar boy. Almodóvar’s blithe response to pointed questions about this was “Why cannot a pedophile be in love?” Almodóvar treats him sympathetically and privileges the pedophile’s gaze with slow-motion scenes of half-naked boys frolicking in a lake at the Catholic-school picnic. There is also an aerial shot of these boys in undershirts and shorts doing calisthenics at the command of the priest. It is not clear in the movie whether these particular scenes are intended to demonstrate the sensibility of the priest or of the director. And Almodóvar is not about to disclaim the pedophilic implications of these scenes. He has chosen as the advertisement for Bad Education a photograph of the altar boy not as the vulnerable victim but as the inviting object of a pedophile’s desire. There is a love triangle involving a pedophile priest, his chosen altar boy, and the boy’s best friend—a precocious child who has already confirmed his true identity as a hedonist by reading about it in an encyclopedia. The pre-teenage boys, as we are discretely shown, experiment with mutual masturbation at the cinema. Their first love is the only triumph of eros in the film. The covetous priest has the hedonist expelled from the Catholic boarding school so he can have the altar boy for himself.

Almodóvar shows us the boy escaping from the priest’s first sexual overture. A drop of blood trickles down his forehead and then becomes a torrent that surreally covers half the boy’s face, splitting his soul into halves. When we see the child as an adult, he is a drug addict and a transsexual with breast implants, determined to blackmail the priest and get enough money to complete his sexual transformation. This is the real Angel, né Ignacio, the director’s first love.

The theme of exploitation is inextricably woven into Bad Education. The imposter turns out to be Ignacio’s younger brother, Juan, who has stolen hisbrother’s screenplay and wants to star in the play as Zahara, a female impersonator. He is pretending to be gay and will do anything to get ahead as an actor. In truth his brother’s sexuality repelled and humiliated him. The twist and turns of the plot are unrelenting, as the exploited become exploiters. The director, who has discovered the impersonation, nonetheless gives the imposter the role of Zahara in the film, and their relationship begins. Gael Garcia Bernal’s performance as Juan is superb and makes brilliant use of Almodóvar’s method and his own talent. The audience can see that he is acting the part of a gay man and can also see what it costs him. The director informs the audience that the impersonator several times allowed “me to penetrate him.” And Almodóvar shows us their faces side by side, one tortured and the other ecstatically torturing; in Bad Education, there are transgressions, they do have consequences, and the darkness is made visible.

Almodóvar ruefully acknowledges that he is getting older. “Only a genius,” he says, “can remain immature.” But if Americans are allowed to see this film they may well conclude that the mature Almodóvar is now ready to take his place alongside the great Buñuel.