We all started out as baby critics, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it except that young critics tend to be gullible. They have no defenses against what’s new and specious; they haven’t the lived experience of seeing a popular trend go out of fashion. In search of fashion, they fall for charlatans like Lars von Trier, Todd Haynes, or pyrite like Bad Education.
Almodóvar is bewitched by his own surfaces (he misnames it “passion”). Problem is, it’s a really superficial movie. The narrative-within-narrative tricks are only that—the denouement is fake-serious and cynical. DePalma’s Femme Fatale was a much more complicated exploration of subconscious desire, while also offering a radical (humanist, Christian) correction of such hallowed film noir conventions as in Double Indemnity. But Bad Education betrays the homo-humanism of Almodóvar’s early films. Its only excitement is the typical mainstream hype bestowed upon a filmmaker who is now completely tamed and co-opted (a high price to pay for developing masterly technique).
But Almodóvar is not the enemy; he’s opened the door for gay filmmakers everywhere (that’s why it’s a little disappointing to see him ape the love theme to In the Mood for Love so blatantly). Sad thing about the success of Bad Education is that critics have fallen for the big-deal promotion and star names (Bernal is the new Rob Lowe), while neglecting truly progressive films like the Mexican A Thousand Clouds of Peace and Spain’s Bear Cub, superior films by Almodóvar’s acolytes. Why? Simply because Almodóvar has the budget, the promotion, the familiar pedigree.
I understand that each generation wants to claim its own values and totems. But young critics who extol Bad Education fail their critical duty to look past its pretty surface and analyze its content. They’re entitled to their pleasure, and pleasure needs no defense. But self-indulgence is not criticism. When a character says “I don’t believe in God. I’m a hedonist” that’s the film’s credo—its cheap thrills (and sinuous yet flaky church bashing) are favored by the same knee-jerk PC mentality that self-righteously rejects the biblical story of The Passion of the Christ.
Despite Almodóvar’s pretense of tabloid sensationalism, this is the most condescending of his recent films. Bad Education caters to gay complacency just as Before Sunset and Sideways pander to hetero complacency. There was a time when Almodóvar’s cultural advances mattered for gays and straights, but it wasn’t 2004.