Bad Education by Pedro Almodovar
Mention director Pedro Almodovar and it's hard not to think of depictions of women and the LGBT community that are sensitive, sympathetic, and ultimately uplifting. All these virtues are captured in Almodovar's most famous work, All About My Mother (1999), with its representation of two trans female prostitutes. Agrado, whose speech at a theatre has become famous in its own right, is one of cinema's most charismatic trans characters, my only regret that it was played by cis-gendered Antonia San Juan. The other character, Lola, is played by the more convincingly androgynous Tony Canto, but gets little screen time, and is presented as a manipulative character who with little regard has given someone AIDS.
Almodovar has toyed with trans narratives since then, in his Gothic thriller The Skin I Live In (2011). This was a film that used trans as a trope for castration and is a far harder movie to like: in the story, a father gets his revenge on his daughter's rapist by performing gender reassignment surgery upon the rapist. What follows is a film of dubious gender politics and fantasy-like reassignment where the mad-professor-like father falls in love with his creation, and the creation herself reciprocates, at least until the end.
With mixed feelings from The Skin I Live In, I avoided further films by Almodovar. But I knew about Bad Education (2004), and last night I finally watched it.
It confirms to me how Almodovar is fascinated by, and finds beauty in, the young male, as well as (cis-gendered) women in general. At the heart of Bad Education is one of mainstream cinema's most beautiful actors, Gael Garcia Bernal, flitting through timelines in a tale of Catholic priests, abuse and extortion. In the story-within-a-story, Bernal becomes a voluptuous transgender female, a character to root for as she plots her revenge against the abusive priest of her childhood. Later, Bernal returns to the original narrative as an Adonis-like boy of fluid sexuality. At one point we see him swimming at the villa of a former friend, the ripples of the sun-lit pool a frame for his lithe movement underwater. Elsewhere in the story of many narrative shifts, we see what we think is Bernal's character as a small boy among many young boys swimming in an idyllic, sun-drenched lake.
The twist comes much later when we learn that Bernal is not the small boy but his brother. The small boy, we discover, grew up to be a leering, heroin-addicted trans woman, with a pronounced five o'clock shadow, a hooked nose and crooked mouth, and breast implants she crudely wants people to admire. To feed her heroin addiction, she both blackmails the priest and regularly takes money from her mother and grandmother. Like any crone or witch, she gets her comeuppance.
I use the word crone because it's the only character type that matches this trans character, and it is worth considering in relation to the other films of Almodovar. Bad Education is a sublime celebration of homoeroticism, and when Bernal does drag, he is magnetic. More so, by far, than the real trans character, a kind of monster that no one could root for.I think back to the other representations of trans that Almodovar goes for: only when a cis-gendered female plays the part does Almodovar approach trans as something attractive. Bad Education, like the other Almodovar's films I've seen, are otherwise to be avoided if you're looking for a sympathetic depiction of trans, and that unfortunately for me is the much bigger twist than the one Almodovar intended for Bad Education.