Thursday, January 19, 2012

Friday Film Pick- Zoe Cassavetes- Broken English (2007)

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With Broken English, Zoe Cassavetes boldly makes her mark upon her family's cinematic legacy. Zoe is the daughter of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, arguably two of the most influential artists in American cinema, and while that automatically pins a tremendous amount of expectation on her first film she delivers with style and grace. Not only is it a funny and insightful movie but it's also peppered with subtle cinematic references that enrich the autobiographical element of the story and elevates this from a “Sex and the City” story to a deeply personal experience.

Obviously drawing from her life and those of her peers, Cassavetes wrote a magnificent script which beautifully illustrates the great strength it takes for an emotionally fragile woman to find self-worth and peace in this crazy, modern world. The protagonist is Norah Wilder (a great nod to another incredible director) played by Parker Posey. Norah is a beautiful but insecure thirty-something so pre-occupied with her career and her perceptions of romance that she's never been able to find a successful relationship, even with herself.

Norah feels the pressure from all sides as she negotiates the treacherous dating scene of Manhattan, deals with her over-bearing mother and step-father (played pitch perfect by Gena Rowlands and Peter Bogdonavich respectively), and lives in the shadow of her best friend Audrey (Drea De Matteo) and her seemingly perfect marriage.

Parker Posey has never looked more beautiful and she plays Norah with such earnest subtlety that you can't help but fall in love with her. You find yourself wanting to console and comfort her when she's put through the relationship ringer on a series of atrocious dates. One such date is with Nick Gable, a new-agey action movie star who seduces Norah after a night of sake and cheap flattery.

The one flaw of the film comes through this character. Cassavetes spends so much time on this element and pushes him so far into the two-dimensional, Scorpio male role that it becomes almost satirical. You wonder how Norah could ever fall for him in the first place and it's the only element of the film that doesn't quite ring true. His mistreatment of Norah is so raw that by the time Norah's real love interest Julien (a suave but dorky French sound engineer) is introduced you are as skeptical of his intentions as she is. After a weekend of bliss Julien returns to Paris and soon after Norah decides to chase after him. Enlisting her best friend Audrey, they rush off to track down a chance at true love.

This is where an interesting parallel to another influential independent film is introduced. Broken English, at times, can be seen as a sort of companion piece to Sofia Coppola's 2003 film Lost In Translation. Zoe Cassavetes has shared a long friendship with the fellow filmmaker, both heiress' to a hefty cinematic legacy with celluloid running deep in their veins. Both films find themselves in stuffy hotels and alienating locales, with soul-searching women soaking up cultural landmarks to an electro-pop soundtrack. Certain character elements are also similar, De Matteo's Audrey is almost certainly based on Coppola. Much like Scarlet Johansson's character in Translation, Audrey is in a crumbling marriage to a neglectful filmmaker succumbing to his own vanity. Seeing this story from another viewpoint I couldn't help but think that perhaps Posey's Norah character was on the other line when Scarlett was sitting in the window of that sad Japanese hotel, calling her friend and trying desperately to connect.

Broken English strikes a different emotional tone, however. It's somehow even more honest than Coppola's film. Sometimes to the extent that one feels almost embarrassed as an audience member to see a character be so vulnerable on screen. In one scene, Posey's performance of Norah's panic attack was so difficult to watch it reminded me of Rowland's heart wrenching dinner table scene in A Woman Under The Influence. In a 2007 interview in The New Yorker, Cassavetes said “I love when I'm writing and I'm cringing because I know I'm doing something right”.

She certainly has. The is real, its raw, its about how people really are. In this case how a woman feeling the full weight of age, loneliness, and social expectation really is. It's sad, funny, and beautiful. A film that would certainly have made her father very, very proud.

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