Anxiety, doubt, fear. Those are all emotions tied to the process of dating and the goal of unconditional love, and they make for a great movie. "Broken English" isn't a particularly bracing romantic comedy, yet it employs a curious sugared rawness that makes it memorable and alive.
Nora (Parker Posey) is a single woman without any luck in the game of love. Burning through a string of lousy dates and boyfriends, Nora finds her curiosity piqued when she's introduced to Julian (Melvil Poupaud), a Frenchman who seems to understand Nora and challenges her insecurities. The two strike up a quick romance, but when Julian must return to France, it leaves Nora caught between atrophying in her life and taking a chance on love for the very first time.
Part of the prickliness entrenched in the material can be traced back to writer/director Zoe Cassavetes, the daughter of actress Gena Rowlands and legendary filmmaker John Cassavetes. Like her brother Nick ("The Notebook"), I can't image holding the Cassavetes name is a walk in the park, especially when you find the urge to make a movie. In many ways, "Broken English" is a softball pitch of a first film, but it's also a smart bet that demonstrates the lineage is still fascinated by the impulses of the human heart.
I described "English" earlier as a romantic comedy, and to a certain degree that's what the film ultimately is. It's not a sitcom and the footprints of cliché rarely intrude on the screenplay, but Cassavetes is working with a recognized ingredient here: the path of the single woman to her one true love. It's a hackneyed template to what becomes a complicated, troubled little film.
Nora is a stormy ocean of problems and doubts, and Cassavetes seems fascinated with this complicated creation. Struggling to stay involved in her own life, Nora relies on luck to get her through the dating scene, but the men constantly disappoint her. The director explores the degenerative effects of Nora's pain through the comedic results of her choice in dates and the darker side of panic as she fears her life will curl up and die without a partner. The promise of a spinster future sends Nora to the self-medicating shores of wine and anti-anxiety pills.
Even through a series of wildly funny humiliations and dark psychological corners for Nora to discover, Cassavetes is madly in love with this character and strives fiercely to keep the viewer in step with Nora's convoluted thought process. It helps to have an ace like Parker Posey in the role of Nora; the actress nestled spectacularly into a golden age of her career where she's playing complicated women and finally delivering complicated performances.
Posey is a blossoming flower in "English," lending Nora a faint glimmer of bravery underneath miles of defeat. Truthfully, the role is an actor's buffet of emotional speeds and revelations, but Posey never winks at the camera or plays it too lightly. The actress trusts Cassavetes has the character's best interests at heart and comfortably crumbles into a nervous pile of sad, balled up on her bed wishing the world would just go away.
The flipside to this is Julian's effect on Nora. At first presented as yet another sleazeball trying to nail Nora and disappear the next morning, the screenplay slowly draws their attraction out. Julian pushes Nora out of her protect bubble and that flight of insecurity is flawlessly expressed by Posey. The last act of the film is Nora in Paris exploring her happiness, and the performance is just as detailed and knotty as before, only now Nora is close to locating her worth for the first time in a very long time.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio), "Broken English" retains its muted, slightly frosted romantic comedy flavors on DVD. Colors are stable, and the DVD preserves the warm, fuzzy appeal of the theatrical presentation.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track separates dialogue and soundtrack selections terrifically, keeping viewers inside the bubble that Cassavetes is constructing. Again, this is an extremely modest production, and the DVD respects that intention with a careful audio presentation.
"Fragments of a Longer Story..." (15 minutes) is a brief snapshot of production, with one of the producers capturing two days of filming with a phone-sized video recording device. Taking a glace at time spent in New York and on a Parisian subway, it's essentially B-roll fodder, but still engrossing footage, especially if the film tickles you. My main beef with this supplement is that damn camera, which shakes like Jell-O with even the slightest hint of movement. Very annoying.
"Higher Definition: 'Broken English'" (27 minutes) marks the return of Robert Wilonsky and his tedious movie program/elaborate commercial for HDNet films. Not being a fan of Wilonsky's overly-smoochy interview style and the Hasselhoffesque opening titles of "Definition," I can safely write that this extra is only for the die-hard followers of the critic and the film. Armed with his trusty ivory turtleneck, Wilonsky sits down with Zoe Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands, Drea De Matteo, and Melvil Poupaud to chat up "Broken English." Oddly, and I mean oddly missing is Parker Posey. Perhaps a sweaty bald man in ski chalet wear scared her off.
Deleted scenes (16 minutes) adds some dimension to Nora's eroding romantic opportunities, but the scenes presented here are superfluous and were rightfully snipped. Still, there are some laughs to be found watching Posey play confusion and disgust with such rich texture.
"Broken English" is paced somewhat oddly and doesn't offer the causal viewer many recognizable bumps in story design or payoff. It's a return of sorts to the stripped-down indie roots of the elder Cassavetes, yet informed with a modern yearn that keeps it relatable and out of the jaws of pretense. Even if the idea of a spin around the foibles of romance racetrack seems repulsive, see the film for Posey's dynamically nuanced performance. It's worth a view just to witness her best screen work to date.