Review: Broken English, Directed by Zoë Cassavetes, Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2007. 98 minutes.
Why is it that as we grow older and stronger
The road signs point us adrift and make us afraid
Saying, “You never can win,” “Watch your back,” “Where’s your husband?”
Oh I don’t like the signs that the sign makers made.
So I’m going to steal out with my paint and my brushes
I’ll change the directions, I’ll hit every street
It’s the Tinseltown scandal, the Robin Hood vandal
She goes out and steals the King’s English
And in the morning you wake up and the signs point to you
“I’m so glad that you finally made it here,”
“You thought nobody cared, but I did, I could tell,”
And “This is your year,” and “It always starts here,”
And oh, “You’re aging well.”1
The life of a single woman is not the glamorous and sexy world portrayed in shows like HBO’s Sex and the City2 or weekly sitcoms like CW’s Girlfriends. In images like these, the idea of someone choosing to break up with their girlfriend via a Post-It note is a laughable and quirky plot invention, not the dehumanizing and depressing experience that it is in a real relationship.
As a single woman in my late twenties, these small- and large-screen depictions of the single life seem like someone’s deranged fantasy. Single life is an awkward balance of good and bad that does not play out in a neat comedic package. I suppose I have one notable exception, namely the fact that I seem to attract the craziest men that Seattle has to offer. But that is fodder for another article. And while my group of girlfriends does go out for the occasional martini and girl-talk, it looks nothing like the perfectly clothed and quaffed outings of Sex and the City. Usually, we end up at someone’s house drinking Charles Shaw wine (a.k.a. “Two-Buck Chuck”) and bemoaning the men or the lack of men in our lives. Unlike a TV show or typical movie plot, when I unexpectedly run into the man I am interested in, there are no smooth words said or witty banter exchanged. The moment is simply awkward, and then we go on about our lives.
Zoë Cassavetes’ film Broken English offers a different vision of what it is like to be a single woman than these glitzy portrayals, particularly through the character of Nora Wilder (Parker Posey). Nora suffers from real problems, such as depression, self-hatred, and anxiety. Cassavetes, unlike the writers and directors of Sex and the City (SATC), allows the weight of these issues to sit for more than five minutes. She does not sound-bite problems, but instead allows their continual presence to underlie the film in a beautiful yet down-to-earth manner. When Samantha is facing cancer in the last season of SATC, this terrifying life situation is used more for its comedic moments than for showcasing the reality that thousands of women die from this illness every year. In contrast to this, during the scenes when Broken English’s Nora is experiencing panic attacks, Cassavetes and Posey keep the audience focused on the actual experience and its effects on those around her. Some of the most intriguing and compelling moments in the film occur when Nora is completely broken. These moments stand out because of their absolute nakedness. Nora is not Carrie Bradshaw. When she is in the midst of a breakdown, she wears the haggard and tearstained expression of suffering, as if the next straw will break the camel’s back. Yet she, like the rest of us, has to walk down a public street in this state.
Cassavetes does not glorify or sugarcoat the chaos of being a single woman, but depicts both the beauty and humanity. One of the most heart-breaking scenes takes place after Nora has gone out with Nick Gable (Justin Theroux), a guest at the New York hotel where she works as hospitality director. She wakes up hung over, at work (the hotel), in bed with a man she knows is more trouble than he is worth. It was in her “oh, shit” moment that I was struck by the artistic integrity and beauty of the scene. The first image of the scene is sweet—what could be two committed lovers curled up around each other in the emerging daylight. But then, as Nora wakes up, the lighting of the room becomes raw and bright. Part of the beauty of the scene is the sorrowful commonality of the experience of being naked with a man who cannot value what has been offered. As Nora quickly leaves the hotel, the camera catches her sneaking away, trying to be incognito in the blinding light of day. Cassavetes does such a great job of displaying the reality of this moment, the self-hatred and frustration that comes with the morning-after hangover. Sitting in the dark theatre, watching powerful scenes like this one, I found that I was being offered an honest and cathartic experience. In spite of the differences between Nora and myself, I identified with the emotions and feelings she evoked. Cassavetes creates a space to enter into our own heartache and brokenness.
Another wonderful segment of the film clearly portrays Nora’s transformation into a woman who values herself. She has flown with her best friend Audrey (Dre de Matteo) to Paris to find Julian (Melvin Poupaud). Julian is a kind and tender Frenchman, and the film’s title derives from the miscommunications between him and Nora. Julian enters Nora’s life at the point when she has completely given up on men. When they first meet, Nora is not ready to trust that Julian can see value in her, because she still doesn’t believe that she has any value herself. He offers her the chance to enter into a different reality—to go with him to Paris—yet she declines. As Nora starts to see the beautiful and valuable woman that she is, she comes to a place where she is willing to take a risk, and ends up in Paris. Because of a mix-up, she is unable to find Julian and is left with the decision to either enter into a journey of exploring Paris, and herself, or leave with Audrey and go back to the way she was. Nora chooses to stay. As she wanders around the city, Cassavetes creates scenes with beautiful images of freedom and wonder. The most telling part of this segment of Nora’s journey is when she meets a man in a gallery who invites her out with some friends for drinks. Nora goes, but unlike earlier in the film, she values herself enough to leave. In the act of leaving, Nora breaks free from the external definitions in which she had been living. Previously in the film, she had been a woman so desperate for attention and love that she would seek these qualities from people who were not able to give them to her.
By entering into Nora’s journey to understand herself, Cassavetes offers a new way of journeying, one of honesty and learning to value one’s self. As Nora enters into self-understanding she begins to listen to her heart and inner voice instead of ignoring its muted cry. Learning to honor and value one’s self is one of the biggest elements missing in most of the women I know, including myself. Raised on films and fairy tales, we have been conditioned to find our value in others and in their views of who we are, instead of in our views. Growing up, I believed the lies I was fed in films, like Some Kind of Wonderful, Sixteen Candles, and The Breakfast Club, that relationships were for comedic timing, and if I just believed, wallflowers could end up with jocks, and my best guy friend would see the light and leave the beautiful, popular girl for me. In spite of what the movies told me, these things never happened. My heartbreaks have been worse not because of the men who broke my heart, but because of the false hopes that fused with my understanding of love as something rooted in modern fairytales. Coming out of this conditioning, characters like Nora feel like a breath of fresh air.
In our American culture, we are not allowed to be beautiful and messy humans. We have been sold the idea that we must seek to achieve the false fairytales that have replaced our true hope for relationships. Satisfaction does not come from the reality of ourselves and of those in our relationships, but from the Disney or HBO version of what relationships should be. For instance, several of my dearest girlfriends are rarely seen for who they are, but instead they are valued only for their external beauty. They constantly have men who want to own or possess them, not encounter who they are at the heart of their personhood. These men have so valued the external image of my friends that they fail to see the whole woman. So much of Nora in the beginning part of the film characterizes this aspect of being Woman. She does not see that she, by nature, has value. We are each beautiful and messy human beings with much to offer to others if only they and we are open to seeing the wholeness of each person. Nora is a beautiful mess like the rest of us. By watching her struggle, I am reminded that we all struggle with the discrepancy between our desires, ideas of what we want life to be, and the reality of where we are at currently. It is in the midst of these contrasting elements that we live most of our lives, “lives of silent desperation,” as Virginia Woolf would say. This desperation comes from not living into the fullness of who we are, where we are.
So often the way in which women—and especially their neurotic and pathological elements—are portrayed in film is either as cute and glamorous, or as psychotic and crazy. There are very few films and TV shows today that reveal women in a normal light. For an example of this negative portrayal of women, take the American remake of the Italian film L’ultimo bacio (One Last Kiss), 2006’s The Last Kiss starring Zack Braff. While the male characters in this film are portrayed in the complexities of humanity, all of the females come off as caricature; Blythe Danner’s character is the only one who possibly escapes this fate. I found it so frustrating to watch as these women were all played as documental stereotypes: the crazy demanding wife, the seemingly nice and cool with whatever yet really crazy knife-welding girlfriend, and the young seductress who, when it comes down to it, wants a relationship in spite of her words to the contrary. While there are women who are mirrored in these characters, there is really no resemblance to any of the women I know. It is no wonder that interpersonal dynamics between men and women get so messy with images like these proliferating in our cultural thought.
The most frustrating thing about many of the films created around the topic of relationships is that so often in the development of the story there is little space for men and women to be both beautiful and flawed human beings, stumbling around trying to be in a relationship with each other. It’s the subtle portrayals of authentic relationships and people that makes Broken English such a powerful film. Cassavetes joins the ranks of female filmmakers like Nicole Holofcener, Mira Nair, and Deepa Mehta who bring real and challenging stories that are quietly powerful in their depictions of the life, hardships, and specific issues that face women in relationships. Nora is not written off so easily as an idealized or deranged image of womanhood, reminding us that women are not just the false idols we are used to seeing on screen.
Most women I know struggle with the very same self-hatred and depression that is portrayed in Nora. Either they are the women who only meet the wrong men, or they are the women who never meet anyone. They are not crazy or glitzy, but real, incredible, and striking women who struggle with the overwhelming pressure to be something else instead of being allowed the freedom to be themselves. As Cassavetes said in an interview, “Sometimes in life you feel so much pain, and all this stuff is available to you and kind of socially acceptable to do, so you completely overmedicate yourself just so you can tune out for five minutes from the constant buzzing of nightmare feelings in yourself.”3 It is these buzzing nightmare feelings, as Cassavetes describes it, as well as the beautiful pieces that together make a whole, lovely, and flawed human being.
Allowing yourself to be human takes a lot of courage; as a woman, one must fashion new paths and write new signs. This is why I chose to open this piece with the Dar Williams quote. The first time I heard this song, it was a confirmation of the struggle that I faced as a woman, the same feeling I had sitting in a dark theatre watching Broken English. Sometimes it is easier to just self-medicate, at least for a while. Yet at some point you have to choose either constant self-medication to avoid facing the heartbreak of constant unrespited desire, or like Nora, choose to find your own path and, in the process, yourself. This is the importance and value of a film like Broken English—that we all (especially women) are free to choose a different path, one where we are released to be our messy and wonderful selves.
1. Dar Williams. “You’re Ageing Well,” The Honesty Room, Burning Fields Music, 1993.
2. The author would like to remind the reader that while it does tend towards shallow and surface topics, Sex and the City does, by its season finale in 2004, grow into a pop-cultural icon that offers the viewer the value and need of strong relationships between women friends, but in regard to men, sex, and romantic relationships, it really is a false image. For the purpose of this article, I am using Sex and the City as a foil for the image of women portrayed in Cassavetes’ Broken English.
3. Amanda Lewis, quoting Zoë Cassavetes in, “Language of The Wounded,” Washington Times (July 20, 2007),http://washingtontimes.com/article/20070720/ENTERTAINMENT/107200008/1007/entertainment