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Broken English: The lonely despair of a liberated woman

By Thomas M. Sipos
web posted July 8, 2019

The trailer for Broken English (2007) suggests a romantic comedy. It isn't. There's nothing funny about living alone, watching your friends pair off and marry as you grow older, the fear increasing that you're running out of time to find Mr. Right. Instead of seeking laughs, Zoe Cassavetes's film acutely reflects the confusions and anxieties of career women seeking love in these progressive times.

Nora (Parker Posey) works at a hotel in New York City. Some sort of public relations position. Small office. No window. Still, I guess it qualifies as a career. Alas, it's not the life Nora wanted. She had hoped to work in the arts. She also wanted to be married with kids by her age. Instead, she's well into her 30s and living the dark side of Sex and the City.

Like a string of fine pearls, Broken English consists of beautifully truthful moments, each one perfect and self-contained, gracefully accumulating into a sublime whole. Consider the opening credits. Nora prepares for a party, trying on dresses. She nervously toys with a ring. She tests her smiles in a mirror, never quite satisfied. She's done it too often. Prepared for too many parties and too many dates. She's weary of it. Her face hints exasperation, insecurity, even desperation.

She later admits to her mother, "It just feels like I have the worst luck in the world when it comes to men. Even I can't stand the sight of my own desperation." 

"You have had some very nice boyfriends," her mother (Gena Rowlands) encourages.

"I know, but that was college. I don't know what happened."

Mom has a clue. "Young women these days have too many choices."

Which is to say, Nora had too many boyfriends, lovers, dates, and hookups. She likely had several attractive marriage proposals in her 20s. If she's still single, it's because she refused to settle. Now that she's in her 30s, the available men are fewer and mostly leftovers.

"The good ones get snapped up so quickly at your age," her mother laments.

Another problem: Nora's emotional instincts have dulled from overuse. When movie star Nick Gable (Justin Theroux) checks into Nora's hotel, she falls easy prey to his charms. She naively swallows his compliments, gets drunk, and quickly beds him. Based on nothing but his slick talk, Nora thinks Nick might be The One, and brags about him to family and friends.

Then another of those beautiful moments. Nora watches TV with her married couple friends, Mark (Tim Guinee) and Audrey (Drea de Matteo). Nick appears on TV, promoting his film. Nora beams proudly as her friends see her new beau on TV. Whereupon Nick confirms rumors that he's dating his co-star, whom he describes as "totally refreshing." The same line he'd used on Nora.

Broken English

A bad romcom would have overplayed the scene, the jilted woman throwing a tantrum. Instead, Nora sits still, staring with a frozen smile. Audrey shuts off the TV. The room is thick with tension. We feel Nora's humiliation. She finally laments, "What is wrong with me? Why can't I meet someone nice?"

Nora's friends assure her that she is fine. Nick's a jerk. But there is something wrong with Nora. She's seeking love and fidelity in hookup culture. A contradiction. "Whatever you do, don't sleep with him on a first date," Audrey had warned. "No, that would be so available," Nora agreed. Yet she did just that. Clearly, Nora is not holding out for a "nice guy."

The Nick Gable segment is admirably handled. It dominates the film's first 20 minutes. Long enough to suggest that Nick is Nora's Mr. Right. Long enough for Nora (and us) to become emotionally invested in Nick, so that when the rug is pulled out from under Nora, we feel her shock and disappointment.

To Cassavetes's credit, we never again hear of Nick. Unlike in formulaic romcoms, Nick does not get his comeuppance. He's out of Nora's life. Just another date that seemed to be leading somewhere but wasn't anything.

Broken English is neatly divided into three acts. In the second, Nora meets Julien (Melvil Poupaud) at a party and spends the next several days with him. Julien is visiting from France, hence the title, Broken English. It refers to Nora's occasional difficulty understanding both Julien's English and his behavior. Because the French are different.

Broken English

Yet on a deeper level, Nora has difficulty understanding any man's behavior. As I said, her emotional instincts are dulled from overuse. As she and Julien share a bath, Nora's joy turns to near panic as she asks, "What is this? What are we doing here?"

"We take a bath," Julien answers.

"But why did you talk about love?"

"When?"

"Before. I'm just trying to figure out if this is supposed to mean something."

"I don't know, Nora. We have no contract. We are just meeting each other."

"You're right. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

Broken English showcases Posey's best performance of the aughts. She is a pinball bouncing among men, seeking love, now agreeing to sex, then holding back for fear of being hurt, now pushing for a commitment, then panicking and shutting down.

After the bath, another beautifully incisive scene. Nora and Julien are kissing in a deli when Guy interrupts with "Nora? Is that you?" and commences a cheerful conversation with Nora, as if his intrusion is perfectly normal and socially acceptable.

Broken English

Broken English

 

Broken English

Nora introduces the men, who feign pleasure at meeting each other. Then Julien slinks off while Nora chats with Guy.

A TV critic once said that Seinfeld wasn't "a show about nothing." It was a show about boundaries. Modern society has blurred traditional boundaries on language and behavior, leaving people confused about how to respond appropriately. In Seinfeld, a person would make an offhand remark or gesture, and the cast would agonize over its meaning. Was the person flirting? Making a job offer? Expressing approval, disapproval? Was this item a gift? Was some gesture, item, or remark expected in return?

Was Guy's interruption innocent friendship? Socially retarded? A boorish "cock block"? Seinfeld would have mined the scene for laughs. But here we feel Nora's anxiety at not knowing how to behave with both men present. We feel Julien's discomfort at not knowing who Guy is to Nora. Long ago, romantic boundaries were clearer. We knew what constituted a formal courtship, what behavior was expected from the man, the woman, and from third parties. But today we must pretend that men and women are identical, everyone "just friends" with everyone else, until we're certain that we can stop pretending.

After Guy leaves, Nora suffers an anxiety attack. Not overplayed, yet powerful. I've never seen one in real life, but I imagine it's very much as portrayed by Posey. Nora is overwhelmed. She's had too many disappointments, too much desperation. She has a lot riding on Julien. Is it love? Her time with him was brief, yet blissful. Did she offend him by chatting with Guy? It's too much. She rushes out of the deli, hyperventilating, exclaiming, "I feel I'm going to die."

Julien returns to France. Nora declines his invite to join him, once again pulling back.

In Act Three, Nora quits her job and flies to Paris to seek Julien. And the tone takes an incongruent turn. Up till now, Broken English was a grim drama about the loneliness, and even searing pain, of modern dating. But Paris is a magical city. Gallant men abound, affirming Nora's worth without taking advantage of her vulnerable emotional state. An old woman gives encouraging words with a twinkle in her eyes. Everyone is kind, and supportive, and full of advice.

Much of it bad.

In stereotypical French fashion, they extol love over fidelity. The old woman rhapsodizes, "Marriage is a contract ... but love!" (Oh-la-la!) A middle-aged man who flirts with Nora (yet chivalrously, and unrealistically, makes no moves on her), advises, "Some want magic. First you must find the magic in yourself." Ah, yes. The same narcissistic philosophy that fuels the hookup culture that worked so well for Nora.

This third act contains its share of beautiful moments, but of a different kind. They are sentimental and vapid, in sharp contrast to the incisive, painful truths of the first two acts. It's like we're watching a different film. After buying her drinks and lifting her spirits, the middle-aged man gallantly escorts Nora to a taxi, bidding her farewell with "I will never forget you."

Don't all women wish the world was filled with such men? Handsome, sophisticated, offering help and admiration, asking nothing in return? This is not the Paris of migrant rape gangs and yellow vest protesters. This is a fantasy Paris where the entire population exists to help women feel better about themselves. I suppose it's how things appear to Nora. After realizing that she loves Julien, and on a path to find him, her world brightens. We're seeing life through the eyes of a manic depressive (Nora's medicine cabinet is full of prescription pills for her attacks), her mood swinging from despair in New York, to euphoria in Paris.

We're supposed to believe that Nora is wiser for her Paris sojourn. Only after she is healed and fortified by France does she find Julien. France even heals and fortifies Audrey, who accompanied Nora. After an afternoon tryst with a gallant Frenchman, Audrey feels newly empowered to save her shaky marriage.

But Nora is no wiser. "I have to stop relying on other people to make decisions for me," she announces. This trite line is dropped incongruently into the scene to signal Nora's empowerment. Yet it was never established that she ever listened to anyone. Had she listened to her mother, Nora would be married by now.

Nora has been making her own decisions. And they suck. What she needs to learn is to stop making sucky decisions. Her "solution" is actually the problem.

Yet for all her faults, even if her problems are of her own making, we love Nora and are rooting for her. Posey dominates Broken English, appearing in nearly every scene, and displaying incredible depth and range. So we're happy when Nora finds love. Yet while the film's ending is emotionally satisfying, it is intellectually dishonest. What begins as an unsparingly realistic drama, ends as a fantasy romance. ESR

Thomas M. Sipos writes horror fiction, satire, and film reviews. His website is http://www.CommunistVampires.com/

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