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Parker Posey will turn thirty-eight later this year. In Zoe R Cassavetes's melancholy romantic comedy, Broken English, Ms Posey is allowed to look her age. This is not so much a matter of wrinkled skin as it is one of worn-out expressions. As Nora Wilder, she plays a woman who is sliding into middle age in a state of hopeless fatigue. Why is she so tired? Because, in important ways, she has not grown up, and childish behavior patterns becomes very taxing sooner or later. And it is hard to find a boyfriend when most of the attractive guys have been snapped up. Nora has reached the age when single people are suspect: what's wrong with them? Ms Cassavetes makes sure that we see what's wrong with Nora as well.
The film opens with a long sequence of Nora getting dressed for a party. It is wearying just to watch, because Nora is so obviously ambivalent about the evening ahead (about which we as yet know nothing) that it's amazing that she can put her clothes on in the right order. Nora is far too tired to sustain the antic, even neurotic tics that addle so many of the characters that Ms Posey plays; the quiet casting against type ends up underlining Nora's exhaustion. On her way out the door, she hesitates about taking some medication (she suffers, we will learn, the occasional anxiety attack), but decides against it.
The event turns out to be the fifth anniversary of the wedding of her friends Mark (Tim Guinee) and Audrey (Drea di Matteo). Nora introduced them. "You should have kept him for yourself," clucks Nora's mother (Gena Rowlands) after the toasts. In the course of the film, we'll see that Nora was right to pass Mark along, although she may not have been doing her best friend any favors. Mark is the kind of nice guy who just doesn't hear what he doesn't want to hear, and this has worn Audrey down, too. Fatigue, however, is the one thing the two women never talk about. As the married friend, Audrey is entitled to give Nora lots of good-natured advice.
Nora works at a boutique hotel in Manhattan, as a sort of back-office concierge. This may or may not be a job beneath her capabilities, but it does not jibe with the somewhat over-upholstered background of Nora's parents (Peter Bogdanovich plays her father) and their friends (Dana Ivey and William Wise), whose bourgeois contentment indicts Nora on a charge of pointless (because adolescent) rebellion. (Why didn't she go to grad school after Sarah Lawrence?) In any case, the job no longer interests her. It is not going to lead to exciting promotions. Nor does she work with stimulating people. Glenn (Michael Panes), a dweeby colleague, pesters her with an invitation to a party that he's giving in a few days; when she actually shows up, he can't believe it. By then, though, Nora has suffered the humiliation of falling for actor Nick Gable (Justin Theroux), a celebrity guest at the hotel. Nick would be a caricature if we saw much more of him. He's childishly picky about his accommodations but shamelessly self-assured when it comes to hitting on women. Against her better judgment, Nora spends the night with Nick (get it?). In the morning, she creeps off, but she lets it be known who her new boyfriend is. This turns out to be very unwise, because in a television clip Nick sings the praises of his (very blonde) girlfriend.
Then there is the young man on the rebound whose mother knows Nora's mother. They never get to first base. In fact, they never get into the theatre where they're going to see an old movie. Before Charlie (Josh Hamilton) can even buy popcorn, he's accosted by his ex, who, while hostile, remains very attractive to him. He apologizes to Nora and offers to put her in a taxi.
These amorous mishaps make gently comic setup for Nora's big adventure, which begins at Glen's party and which Nora does nothing but resist. Ms Cassavetes, who has certainly inherited her father's ability to present intensely alive characters on film, so firmly establishes Nora's pooped despair in the opening scenes that we're right there with her when she tries to push Julien Durand (Melvil Poupaud) away. He's drawn her at first sight, and he succeeds in keeping her from leaving the party. But, to speak practically, what kind of investment does he constitute? We learn that he works in film but is not an actor. He has come to New York to work on a film starring his girlfriend - his ex-girlfriend. She has done what all good actresses do and taken up with her male costar. Julien doesn't seem to be too wounded, but then he's the sort of man who tries to live with a light touch. Julien will presumably return to France. I have not seen Mr Poupaud play so jaunty and equable character before; although he smolders a bit, it is not with resentment (Le temps qui reste) or clandestine passion (Le Divorce). His Julien is as sure of himself as Nick Gable was, but he's much less noisy. Even though she doesn't speak French, Nora finds him irresistible.
When Nora and Julien have had a few days of Manhattan-backlit romance, we know that Julien is good enough to be - maybe - too good to be true. Whether or not she has fallen in love, Nora is certainly attached to him, and he has to pry himself from her arms in order to catch his plane. He leaves his Paris phone number, along with an invitation very different from Glen's: Nora is welcome to come and live with him. This is a proposition that, in the ensuing days, seems less and less fanciful, and presently Nora and Audrey have lined up courier assignments that will get them to Paris on the cheap (not that Audrey isn't affluent). Once the women have delivered their respective packages - two interesting dramatic parentheses - Nora discovers that she has lost Julien's number, and that "Julien Durand" is a far from uncommon name.
It is in dealing with this romantic catastrophe that Nora begins to grow up. On the verge of devastation, she turns around and walks back into living (she is, after all, in Paris). She flirts with a boy in an art gallery (Yarol Poupaud) and then teases his friends at a café. She has dinner with an older gentleman who encourages her to enjoy life and then puts her in a taxi. And Nora does begin to enjoy life. Being alone is not the end of the world. She stops looking for Julien. She's sad about leaving Paris, but already she looks more rested.
And then Ms Cassavetes sprinkles a generous helping of movie magic on her story, ending it somewhat inconclusively but, for the time being, in a very nice place. As befits most of the actors in this film, Broken English is character- rather than plot-driven. Unlike many recent romantic comedies, it does not inflect the conventions of the genre with irony or quirkiness; nor, in the manner of Knocked Up, does it play against those conventions. It is not even about a couple, for we are never alone with Julien. Broken English is a film about an aimless woman who decides, very quietly, to take charge of her life. Parker Posey is just the actress to show us how difficult this decision is, and to make it all very comical at the same time. And Zoe Cassavetes is just the director to create powerful intimacy with a camera. Expect to be a bit exhausted yourself when Broken English is over. (August 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press