By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Broken English,” Magnolia Pictures, 2007]
This is the way it’s done, U.S.-indie-filmmaking-wise: Zoe Cassavetes’s “Broken English” is so far 2007’s reigning small Ameri-movie, by simple and lonely virtue of the mature intelligence and respect it pays to its characters and life at large. If we had a dime for every indie that tries and fails to nail down the nutty texture and sad comedy of being a single, lovelife-troubled woman in Manhattan, we’d be in Paris Hilton’s hot tub, but Cassavetes’s film leaves us no spare change, just the truth. Parker Posey is Nora, a swanky hotel concierge (a beautiful choice of employment, both a respectable earner and a dead end) whose path through her 20s and 30s and stampeding to her 40s is littered with the refuse of ruined relationships and disappointments. Everybody’s got advice (that includes Gena Rowlands, Mama Cassavetes, as her mother, and Drea de Matteo as her irately married girlfriend), and every idle conversation turns quickly toward Nora’s crisis-mode status as a never-married, manless spinster. The movie’s all about character; Cassavetes (honoring her father’s memory as her brother Nick never has, despite his straining efforts) and Posey never project and emphasize when they can play it subtle, cagey and close to the vest as Nora herself does by the time we meet her, bruised and bitter about her seemingly inevitable loneliness. When she spontaneously cries at lunch with her mother, it’s not a big acting show-piece it just is, and life goes on.
But it’s a comedy, rife with deadpan New York dryness and performance tidbits (Justin Theroux, as an actor with a Mohawk, “playing Choctaw” in a movie, is so sly you hope that everything he says isn’t a lie, but you know it is). It may also be the first movie to bring the full personality of Posey to bear since her dynamite supporting riff in 1994’s “Sleep with Me” and this despite “Broken English”‘s overall restraint and bullseye accuracy. Despite having worked so much she runs the risk of being an overfamiliar presence in American movies, Posey has, it seems, been drastically underused, and so perhaps for the first time you get to see this wondrous woman of the al-dente-noodle limbs and wide sarcastic smile act like a whirlwind, making more out of a single reaction shot (watch her after her date to Film Forum gets shanghai-ed) than she’s been able to make out of entire screenplays in the past. (Not that it’s ever been truly her fault.) Nora’s neediness, caught in a middle-shot as a seemingly sweet and honest Frenchman (Melvil Poupaud) sits on her bed and admits he has to leave, is positively rending.
Posey-triumph and single-chick indie miracle that it is, “Broken English” may also be the most eloquent portrait of its subject demographic ever made, despite changing two-thirds of the way through into a slightly ditzy French-movie version of itself and robbing a little, in the end, from Linklater’s “Before Sunset.” While “Sex in the City” reruns are merely the idiot’s guide to lonely-girl anesthetization, Cassavetes’s feature-film debut is the true gem.
Indies of another day and age: Luis Buñuel’s “The Young One” (1960) is an unarguable freak amidst one of cinema’s greatest filmographies it’s the only film Buñuel shot in English (it’s a Mexican co-production); the last he’d make in relative anonymity, after years of toil in Mexico, before “Viridiana” (1961) would reawaken the world to things Buñuelian; the only Buñuel film written by a certified HUAC blacklistee (Hugo Butler); and the first of only three films, over a 50-year span, adapted from the fiction of powerhouse Peter Matthiessen. In fact, “The Young One”‘s swampy white trash vibe suggests Matthiesen’s later bestseller “Killing Mister Watson” more than most of Buñuel’s other movies, but the fact is that Buñuel wrote the screenplay from the ground up. Matthiesen’s short story “Travelin Man” had only two characters, a black man on the run from erroneous rape charges, and the bigoted white hunter who stalks him through the Southern swamps. That’s far too lean and neat for Buñuel, who gives the bigot (Zachary Scott) a game warden compound (he’s also a poacher) where his dead partner’s uneducated 14-ish wild-child daughter (Key Meersman) also lives. The appearance of a desperate black man on the run (Bernie Hamilton, brother to Chico Hamilton) sets us up for a Stanley Kramer-ish lesson in civil-rights-era race relations.
Would that it were so simple: as usual, Buñuel is fascinated by sexual impulse his characters’ and his audiences’. Ignore the wooden acting (Buñuel was so frustrated, reports have it, that he had to ask Hollywood pro Scott to act worse, so some semblance of uniformity could be attained), and scout for the Buñuelian discomfitures. Witness the scene in which Hamilton’s renegade exchanges dialogue with Meersman’s clueless babe while she stands naked in an outdoor shower Buñuel shoots them from the thighs down, summoning up antsy prejudices in the 1960 audience even as the characters act as if nothing is odd. White vs. black dictates the plot, but the primary concern is for the body of that underage girl (Meersman is a double for the young Liv Tyler): who will rape her first, who will find out about it, and, finally, how the issue might resolve itself in a hillbilly wedding. In many ways, “The Young One” fits thematically right alongside “Las Hurdes,” “Los Olvidados” and even chunks of “Diary of a Chambermaid,” with its vision of humankind living on the level of predatory animals (there’s lovely footage of a raccoon eating a chicken alive, amid the doomed tarantulas, crabs, bees and rabbit cadavers). A must-have for Buñuelians, this rarely-seen detour is now officially DVD’d alongside his truly forgettable debut in Mexico (and his first full-on feature), “Gran Casino” (1947); both come with explanatory commentaries by cinema historians.
“Broken English” (Magnolia) and “The Young Ones” (Lionsgate) are now available on DVD.