Broken English – Zoe Cassavetes and the conversation we all avoid. (Film Review)


The radical tension that underlies the romance genre is a kind of post modern reflexive in reverse. Where works, I’m thinking here mostly of books and films, seek to include an awareness of self in a clever catchall fashion, romance as a genre has the opposite problem of self-awareness; that is it is self-conscious in an ill-defined negative relationship with itself that can’t be dismissed as easily as an issue of feminised struggle, because it is ongoing despite many attempts by males and females to eradicate the problem through a contemporary PC (perhaps) over simplistic genre bending. Examples of this are, Four Weddings and a Funeral that placed masculinity at the centre of the rom com, films like Enough Said that show romance between mature couples, the Linklater Sunrise series that take the language between couples seriously, and so on. And yet always, there is an uneasy tension, a hope to break out of a mould rather than be included into an existing genre, a self-consciousness imposing itself through an internal dialogue that can’t help implying if the artist behind the work was really serious, the love affair would be metaphoric rather than the primary subject of inquiry.

So, is seriousness the problem of love as subject when it comes to film making? Even films like Blue Valentine, while not dismissed, are seen as an extension of the romance genre, and carry within themselves that same discomfort. The problem with all of this, besides it being irrational (if irrationality genuinely constitutes a problem), in that there seems to be no proper argument to defend the tension, or even to explain it adequately, so an entire vocabulary is being marginalised as a tribute to an unexplained blindness. It is a problem for film makers themselves, because they will inevitably be forced to deal with the tension at some point in film making and it is a problem for critics who are forced to include it in some way when discussing a project.


I’d like to cite Broken English as a perfect example of this problem. Broken English was released in 2007, which dates it as three years after the final episode of Sex and the City and just over a year before the first SaTC film was released, but given the amount of critical observation that includes Sex and the City in its reviews you will remember that the world had not yet gotten over the fabulous foursome. Broken English is inappropriately compared to Sex and the City, presumably because Parker Posey (really, you can’t get further away from SaTC than Parker Posey) is in her late thirties, Melvil Poupaud is in his early thirties, the principle wants a relationship and talks to her friend about it. Other than that it would be a dire stretch to find any similarities with the television show at all. That so many critics saw a resemblance speaks to the underlying problem I’m speaking of here. Broken English is a fine study in the language and communication of love, you can see it in the title, it is represented in the endless complex silences between the two protagonists (one of the most interesting and beautiful representations of love I’ve ever seen on a screen) that are so abundantly and obviously pregnant with a thousand words that are always rendered inadequate because of the moment. Nora Wilder (Parker Posey) is surrounded by the banality of the language of love, but her primary problem is there is no way for her to describe her situation adequately. She knows this, and yet when people look at her and ask what she wants, her inadequate answer  – flawlessly portrayed by Posey who is a desparingly underrated actor – the banality of the conversation underscores the enormity of feeling like the cheezy score to love that it is.

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And surely this is the principle problem of romance as subject in film? Zoe Cassavetes has produced a wonderful film that flawlessly captures the very problem of the romance genre – the unease and tension within the conversation (Or game to use Wittgenstein’s phrasing) on romance as subject matter is woefully inadequate. Cassavetes perfectly captures this in stealing Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy final lines from Before Sunset – as if to say, even in this crucial, life altering moment for this extremely interesting couple, all they can do is steal the lines from another romantic film. This is immaculately captured in Parker Posey’s perfect performance (OK, so YOU try to use her name without alliteration) where every word is at odds with her feelings, and her anxiety attacks stem from an inability to communicate her exact feelings at a certain juncture when the romantic tension calls for a statement. As we watch her failed dates, we see her constant disappointment in words. It is only when she meets a french man, and language is already something that has to be concentrated on (there is a lovely moment with a taxi driver who hopes she finds “‘appiness” misinterpreted  to suggest “a penis”), does the issue of words come to the surface. Repeatedly, the concrete ministrations of love are referred to as a contract and the language of love a giant ocean that, strangely, can never be spoken.

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Even in the watching, however Zoe Cassavetes cleverness is difficult to see, because of whatever it is that ultimate alienates us from certain stories of love. Here is a film that genuinely asks the questions we should be addressing in our cultural explorations of the interesting and important examination of what it means to love, and yet the intentional irony is missed in a culture that still can’t self examine with detachment. I playfully suggest if the Romance genre (capital R intended) is so deeply loved by so many (and it is) then it deserves analysis as to why and what that is asking of us, rather than an assumptive dismissal that immediately calls forth a refusal.