Broken English

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Zoe Cassavetes’ first feature film, Broken English (2007), is an analysis of what love means to her generation, and the perception of happiness that goes with it. Stylistically, the film follows the trend set by films such as Party Girl (1995) and Kicking And Screaming (1996) in the nineties. Like these films, Broken English examines the moral debacles of its characters in scenes of wordy dialogue rather than employing expressionistic cinematography. However, Cassavetes’ use of music in the films soundtrack directly recalls the early films of Hal Hartley. Sequences of sustained and continuous action are scored with original electronic rock music. The combination of these styles makes Broken English feel like the direct product of the nineties American independent film movement.

Zoe Cassavetes cast independent movie regular Parker Posey as the lead character Nora in her film. This gesture not only recalls the earlier independent films, but also makes allusions to Nora being a continuation of Posey’s character in Party Girl or Kicking and Screaming. This sets Broken English up as a kind of unofficial sequel to these earlier films. Even Nora’s trip to Paris is meant to recall Robert Burke’s trip to New York in Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth (1990).

To further her allusions, Cassavetes’ has cast her mother, Gena Rowlands, and film director Peter Bogdanovich as the older generation, the fifty and sixty somethings eager to see their children married. Rowlands’ work with her husband (Zoe’s father) John Cassavetes and Bogdanovich’s films of the seventies establish them as the forefathers of the independent film movement that overtook cinemas in the nineties. As much as Broken English is a character study of Nora, it is also a mapping out of stylistic growth and cultural indebtedness between two different waves of American filmmaking.

Broken English’s narrative message is, regretfully, indistinct. The film’s protagonist Nora feels pressured by her friends and family to settle down. This pressure prompts her to neglect her lover Julian (Melvil Poupaud), remaining in America when he returns to Paris. Of course, Nora goes to find him, and eventually succeeds in finding her happiness. But the film is more concerned with Nora’s journey. The narrative is designed to illustrate the superficiality of a happy exterior; to indicate that romance is much more complicated than the idolized notions of bliss that the cinema propagates. Nora’s romance with Julian is often interrupted by the brief resurgence of her former lovers, and numerous references to her most recent companion (Justin Theroux), who, like Julian, works in the cinema.

It’s the weakness of Broken English’s narrative that prevents the film from excelling, and often prevents the reflexive aspects of the film from appearing relevant. What redeems the narrative part of the film is exactly what redeems so many independent films, Parker Posey’s performance. Yet, one has to wonder if Posey hasn’t formulated a precise science to playing so many near identical characters in these films.