Broken English

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

25 August

Paris liberated, 1944

On this day in 1944 the German garrison in Paris surrendered and Paris was liberated, after a battle lasting six days. It had started with an uprising by the French Resistance on 19 August, who were augmented by General de Gaulle’s Free French Army of Liberation and Third Army troops under General Patton. France had been occupied since June 1940, but the allies had considered it a low priority for liberation; the thrust was towards Berlin. However, the issue was forced by the outbreak of a general strike and the uprising of the Resistance, and compounded by General Leclerc of the Free French Army disobeying an order by his American superior and sending a vanguard of the 9th Armored Company into Paris. The 2nd French Armored Division and 4th US Infantry Division followed. The commander of the German garrison, Dietrich von Cholitz, disobeying an order from Hitler not to give up Paris until it lay in ruins, surrendered.

Broken English (2007, dir: Zoe Cassavetes)

Any film made by anyone called Cassavetes is always going to be judged against those made by John Cassavetes, indie pioneer, cinema verité exponent, improvisation champion. Which is why Nick, his son, gets a tough ride for making big romantic meringues such as The Notebook. So what of Zoe, the daughter? Well her debut feature frolics in the froth of emotion too, though this one is a car-crash romance that might just have made dad smile. It stars Parker Posey as Nora, a walking romantic disaster who wants nothing more than to be loved. Which is why, breaking her “don’t sleep with them on the first date” rule she does just that with a semi-famous actor (Justin Theroux) who comes into the hotel she’s working at. Later, when Nora is heartbroken after the guy turns up on a TV interview and gushes about his great girlfriend – and he isn’t talking about Nora – her gal pal Audrey (Drea De Matteo) advises her “not every guy you meet has to be a future husband.” But Nora’s DNA – and her ticking 30something ovaries – are advising her the opposite. Then Nora meets another guy, a Frenchman called Julien (Melvil Poupaud) at a party, and is again smitten. Julien is too, but after they have made the two backed beast he declares that he wants to be a free agent and in any case he lives in France and so… another disaster. Except that this time Nora decides not to take it lying down, so to speak, and persuades Audrey to go with her to Paris to hunt Julien down.

It’s at this point that the film becomes exceptionally double-headed. On the one hand it seems to be grounded in a reality that you don’t often get in films – for instance the fact that Nora regularly drinks too much but nobody says anything about it at all; it isn’t the harbinger of full-bore alcoholism. But on the other hand, in what version of reality does someone go off to Paris to find someone, without, for example, trying an exploratory email or Google search first?

You’ll just have to brush these concerns aside if you want to watch this film and enjoy it. Though it is worth watching, not least for Posey’s frazzled portrait of a woman so lacking in self-respect that she’s being tossed hither and yon by notions of idealised romance. You’re also going to have to avoid odd moments of psychological exposition delivered by random characters – a clichéd Frenchman Nora meets in a bar being a notable example, who opines that “first you must find love and ’appiness in yourself”. For god’s sake.

Does she find her Julien, find love? That would be telling. But it’s interesting to watch a gifted film-maker, which Zoe Cassavetes undoubtedly is, working in the field of the most reviled of genres, the romance. And it’s interesting to watch a gifted actress like Parker Posey playing a woman whose dizziness and silliness makes her the antithesis of screen portrayals of womanhood right now.

Why Watch?

  • A great Parker Posey performance
  • The support cast included Geena Rowlands and Peter Bogdanovich
  • A fine debut by an interesting filmmaker
  • A strange romance

Broken English – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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