Wednesday, November 11, 2009

REVIEW: An Education

What does it say about a movie when you have to restrain yourself from applauding as the main character blows out her birthday candles?

There are several levels of artistic engagement, but the worst and the most immediately rewarding is emotional engagement. This is one of the most wonderful things about talking about movies with people who don't really know movies that well; they'll tend to talk mostly about the things they love. For those of us who know what we're talking about and take it (that is, cinema) very seriously, we tend towards conversations around the essay-ready movie, films with myriad themes and allusions, films that open themselves up to interpretation and which defy easy categorization.

This gets to the problem of emotional engagement, which is that discussing those films becomes very, very difficult. And God help the person who disagrees with you. Some of the worst fights I've had in my life have been over Crash (a truly contemptible film) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which, don't get me wrong, is a fine film, but many a man has claimed it the best film of all time and met with much contention on my part).

This is all to say that I loved Lone Scherfig's An Education deeply (until the last couple of minutes, a true tuck-and-roll ending that is thoroughly unsatisfying in every possible way). Jenny is exactly the kind of character I clamor for in movies, and Carey Mulligan's performance is as revelatory as I'd been hearing for the past ten months since the film's premiere at Sundance. Absolutely admirable in her ambition, interests, and clear knowledge of the sort of life she wants, yet totally unsure of the precise form that life will take, open to the possibility of the result, and firmly clueless in how to go about any of it, Jenny is the kind of precise creation that comes along very rarely.

So, too, is the world she lives in. What could be more predictable than, upon entering into a relationship with a man nearly twice her age, have parents absolutely, firmly against the whole affair? But that wouldn't be in keeping with the times, and her parents' desire to see her attend Oxford ends up being less about carving an exceptional future for herself than it is about the closest option to a totally secure future, financially. If another option comes along, like a husband, why not go for that?

What continues to fascinate me since seeing the film are the many things the title comes to mean. Without running off a list of them, the one that I love it for the most, than I love Jenny for the most, is the fact that the very education she's turning her back on is what made her the person she is. Without an education, she would have never had the desire to invest in French culture; read their books, listen to their music, see their films. She would never have even know these things existed. Who but an educated person would sit in a cafe and discuss Camus?

I don't blame Jenny for these faults - I love her for them, because, I'll admit it, she reminds me so much of myself (even at 23, I have some hindsight and self-awareness), contemptible of my own rather privileged education, yet constantly, unknowingly drawing from it. They say youth is wasted on the young, and without a doubt they're correct in this assessment, but in a time when young people are so often portrayed as totally uncaring in even an indirect way of the benefits of education, I cannot overstate how refreshing it is to see a character as intellectually curious as Jenny. This is the kind of person schools should be aiming to create; not an army of overly-ambitious salary-seekers, but people deeply invested in what they're learning, and eager to continue their education in whatever form that may take.

And I've barely even touched the wealth of material in a relatively short film, especially the romance that's theoretically at the center of the thing. This is part of the reason I felt so short-changed by the ending; the film had clearly decided it was primarily about the romance, so once that story was more or less concluded it had no use for truly finishing the character's arc. It's a frustrating, all-too-common side effect of the cinema of the situation rather than the cinema of the story, but although it undermines its ambition, it doesn't take away an ounce of its accomplishment.

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