Friday, 2 September 2011
Galit asked me to review the film, An Education, based on Lynn Barber's memoir. Of course, I said yes. I saw this film a while ago, so I re-watched it yesterday. I have to say that while it flitted over my mind when I first saw it, this time, I was more aware of certain themes running throughout the film. It's a pleasant enough film: beautifully shot, well-acted, a nice neat storyline and fantastic costumes. But it's a familiar story, there's nothing new here. Jenny, a young girl, is on the eve of adolescence. She is seduced by David, an older man, and must decide between the promise of education at Oxford University and the lure of romance and easy thrills.
The 1960s setting helps us believe in Jenny's naivete and her parents' gullibility, and yet, I did find myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable as the film progressed. There were latent subtexts to An Education which didn't quite let me enjoy the easy froth and outward beauty of the film. For one thing, I found it really creepy that in one of their first intimate moments, David wants Jenny to use baby talk and calls her 'Minnie'. His infantilising of sex was just uncomfortable to watch, especially within the context of an older man with a much younger teenage girl. I know this is supposed to be a 'light' film, but it didn't feel like that during such scenes.
And then there is the palpable anti-Semitism of some of the characters, which was personally quite infuriating. David is Jewish, and while ostensibly, this is not the main focus of the film, there are numerous references to this fact that left me feeling strange. And then it hit me: maybe this is actually an important theme in the film. In fact, there are two moments in the film that stayed with me which are explicitly tied to this theme, and they come in the form of dialogue spoken by Jenny and her father. I'm para-phrasing here from memory, so hopefully this is accurate:
Wandering Jew. When Jenny brings home her first teenage boyfriend, her father calls him a Wandering Jew as a joke - a term that comes to haunt him when David enters the picture. Although this is a slight comment in the film, it did leave me thinking.
The myth of the Wandering Jew is tied to the narrative of wandering in exile, waiting to return to a 'homeland'. This aptly summarises David's character. He wanders through life, he coasts from woman to woman, he has no 'home', no place to be himself. His cons, stealing and cheating are a form of evasion. Not even his wife and children can anchor him. Arguably, it's his wandering that draws Jenny to him. The idea of wandering aimlessly and having random fun is so deeply exotic when you're really young, until you learn that it's really just another form of escaping life.
For Jenny, though, it is more complicated. As a young woman in the 1960s, her choices are more limited: she must decide between the anchor of education and the anchor of marriage. Socially, she cannot live David's form of escape, and by the end of the film, it is debatable whether she wants it anymore. She grows up a bit and realises that life is not something that you can skim over without any difficulty.
It's not enough to educate us anymore, you've got to tell us why. Jenny utters these words to her school Principal. I thought they were quite good (I hope I'm remembering them correctly, but you get the gist of it). 'Why' is a question I've gotten a million times about my own education. In the first few years of my PhD, a constant question I got from people I had just met was 'why': Why was I doing a PhD? Why was I studying something as 'useless' as English (sigh)? And what kind of job could I possibly get with it? There came a certain point when I simply stopped answering, and I suppose my silence was taken as a sign of the impracticality of my decisions. But is wasn't, it was the silence of assurance. I knew there was a reason for my education beyond tangible 'proof'. At the beginning of the film, Jenny searches for 'proof' of education's worth, and at the end, this proof becomes unnecessary. But I'm not exactly sure what replaces it as the film ends with a question mark. Still, I like to picture a happy ending for Jenny in Oxford, where she 'wanders' a different, non-evasive, path.
Has anyone seen An Education? If so, what did you think of it?