Monday 29 March 2010

An Education / Cracks

When Carey Mulligan's Jenny randomly throws in some French into conversations or lies on the floor of her parents' desperately middle-class house, listening to records by Julie Greco, the world she longs to be part of is so far out of her reach as it could possibly be. She is about to finish school and go to Cambridge, but there is only so much freedom a girl from the suburbs has in the early Sixties. 
It is probably important to remember that the screenplay, based on a biographical short story, was written by Nick Hornby, who captures the longing for a more interesting, more relevant life, one that is worthy of beautiful and devastating songs, comes from. In the Nineties, Jenny might pick up a guitar and join a band - but in her miserable little suburb, she has to wait for a White Knight to come and save her because the way out of there is of questionable quality and involves learning a dead language (studying, becoming a teacher, like the supportive and engaging English teacher Miss Stubbs, played by Olivia Williams, who clearly captivates Jenny, but at the same time scares her because she perceives her as "lifeless"). 
David's (Peter Sarsgaard) arrival already seems like it's been taken out of a romantic movie: walking home from a cello rehearsal in the rain, he offers to protect her instrument from the weather, but not her, because that would be inappropriate. They get over such bourgeois notions rather quickly, and soon, Jenny puts her old friends, the boy who was awkwardly chasing her, and her books aside to be with David and his friends who offer a much more adventurous life (going to nightclubs, Paris, auctions).
Since we see this life from her perspective, and the harsh contrast to her home life with the father so easily wooed by the articulate and charming, yet utterly inappropriate older suitor for his daughter, the viewer actually cheers Jenny on as she delves into a life that soon turns out to be a little less glamurous than at first sight (as David and his best friend turn out to be con men, easily justifying what they are doing with a version of the bohemian ideology Jenny adored from afar at the beginning of the movie). Her speech when she drops out of school is moving because in many ways she is right:
"Studying is hard and boring. Teaching is hard and boring. So you’re telling me to be bored, and then bored, and then finally bored again, this time for the rest of my life. This whole stupid country is bored. There’s no life in it, or colour in it, or fun in it. It’s probably just as well that the Russians are going to drop a nuclear bomb on us any day now. So my choice is either to do something hard and boring, OR to marry my... my Jew, and go to Paris and Rome and listen to jazz and read and eat good food in nice restaurants and have fun. It’s not enough to educate us any more, Mrs Walters. You’ve got to tell us why you’re doing it.
I don’t wish to be impertinent, Mrs Walters. But it is an argument worth rehearsing. You never know. Someone else might want to know what the point of it all is, one day."
Her options in this environment are limited, as the struggle for equal opportunities is only beginning, and is far from having reached British suburbs. Her own escape turns out to be a con, sadly: David is actually leading the very same, miserable middle-class life her parents do, with a wife (Sally Hawkins, "Fingersmith", "Happy-Go-Lucky") and children, and the possible way out is nothing but lies. In the end, the saviour is Mrs Stubbs (who is perfectly cast and, despite the fact that she only has a few scenes, a remarkably complex character), who lives in a beautiful, open, sunny apartment (as one of the aesthetic points the movie makes is that how we live says everything about how free we are: some are hanging their walls with pictures they can only afford by stealing, others live in damp, old houses without light - and in the end it's the "liveless" teacher who has the most beautiful home). Jenny, thrown out of school without a degree, asks her for help: and Mrs Stubbs says "I was so hoping that’s what you were going to say." This is a rather surprising and lovely little movie.

"Cracks" by first-time director Jordan Scott shares some themes with "An Education". It is set in a British elite boarding school in the 1930s. The moment that sets the tone for the entire captivating, brutal, disturbing movie occurs at the very beginning: Miss G (Eva Green), the stunningly beautiful swimming instructor who also acts as a confidante to her students asks them what is truly important in life and dismisses "god" and "treating everybody well" - but when Di Radfield (Juno Temple, "Atonement") offers "desire", she whole-heartedly agrees. Desire is the driving force for the girls who do anything to impress their beloved teacher - it's almost a form of worship, understandable from the desperate state of isolation from the world they suffer - but the fragile balance tips when a new student arrives.
Fiamma (Mariá Valverde) immediately becomes the object of many things. As she reveals her talents in storytelling and high diving, she is met by both adoration and jealousy from the other girls (especially Di, whose place she takes almost immediately), but it's Mrs G's reaction that is truly intriguing. As she gets more and more fascinated by the foreign aristocratic girl who stresses that her presence is only temporary (Mrs G finds out that it's not, as Fiamma has caused a scandal back home when she ran away with a peasant Marxist), Mrs G, the glamourous woman who has built up a world of her own in the boarding school with her stories of past adventures and the life in the big cities starts to fall apart. We realize that she has created a persona for herself, someone who has had adventures and is only staying at the boarding school temporarily, like her students, to help them, when in fact she has spent her entire life there and even leaving school grounds to shop in the small village causes her too much distress. She is a prisoner of her own mind more than of the place itself, as the girls waiting for their lives to begin are. Eventually, Fiamma becomes both a focusing point of her desires and a potential threat for her, because she is the one who actually did all the things Mrs G only read in books, and realizes the power that knowing the truth brings.
The descent into madness at the end of the movie mirrors that of "Heavenly Creatures" by Peter Jackson: people who are too lost in their own fantasies of a world that does not correspond with reality ultimately resort to violence in order to keep up their dream world. Fiamma falls victim to Mrs G first, then to the jealous group of girls, trying to preserve the state of things before she arrived, that is no longer attainable.

"An Education", 2009, Director: Lone Scherfig, featuring Carey Mulligan, Peter Saarsgard, Alfred Molina, Olivia Williams, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Emma Thompson.

"Cracks", 2009, Director: Jordan Scott, featuring Eva Green, Juno Temple, Mariá Valverde, Imogen Poots, Ellie Nunn.

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