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Issue Date:  December 17, 2004

Sex and sensibility

'Kinsey' and 'Bad Education' raise provocative questions


Bill Condon’s Kinsey, an entertaining and often stirring film biography of the still-controversial mid-20th century sex researcher, gives Liam Neeson a great acting opportunity in a complex, demanding role. Alfred Kinsey, of course, is identified with the drastic change in American sex attitudes from mid-20th century prudishness to today’s permissiveness. Whereas President Bush’s recent successful exploitation of “family values” can be understood in part as a continuation of the outraged response to Kinsey’s findings on U.S. sexual practices, the movie celebrates a complicated, headstrong scientist obsessed with the need to collect data on a subject previously left largely undocumented.

As both writer and director, Mr. Condon has done a fine job of condensing the mass of material available on Kinsey’s life, drawing principally on Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s 1998 biography. (James H. Jones’ 1997 study, Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life, is a good deal more critical.) We follow Kinsey’s development from repressed child with a bullying Methodist father to passionate student of gall wasps, to charmingly awkward suitor of Clara McMillen (Laura Linney), and finally zealous collector of information on sexuality, which he immediately passes on to students who are ignorant or shockingly misinformed on the subject.

Fortunately, this is accomplished in easy stages and with considerable humor. Though Mr. Condon is clearly sympathetic with his hero, he includes indications of an imperiousness that seems to repeat the example of Kinsey’s father. He is especially helped by Ms. Linney’s performance as Kinsey’s wife “Mac”; we see the hero through her eyes, loving but aware of human foolishness. Her admiring affection survives some sharp tests, including her husband’s homosexual encounter with one of his assistants and even his self-circumcision with a pocketknife a year or two before death. But a late scene of the two walking amid giant trees provides a convincing image of a successful marriage.

Kinsey’s approach in collecting as many sex histories as possible leads to an interview with a man who has had numerous sexual encounters with boys, girls and animals as well as men and women. In a scene based on the encounter, one of Kinsey’s research assistants walks out in disgust, and even the professor seems shaken, but he accepts the data as scientifically valuable. There is no question that Kinsey made an important contribution by demonstrating that masturbation is a routine practice and homosexuality more prevalent than previously believed, but the movie never shows him being challenged for not asking philosophical and ethical questions regarding his findings.

Mr. Neeson does an excellent job of suggesting how Kinsey could be both overbearing and socially insecure, totally sure of himself yet never quite at home in his own skin. Mr. Condon’s movie ends with a moving interview with a woman who tells the scientist that his work saved her life; beautifully acted by Lynn Redgrave, it is convincing rather than mawkish.

Pedro Almodóvar, the flamboyantly gifted Spanish director, shifts his attention from women (“All About My Mother,” “Talk to Her”) to men in his new film, Bad Education. The title seems to refer to sexual abuse of the boy Ignacio by Fr. Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho) at a Catholic school during the Franco era, but the director seems less interested in anticlericalism than in the way a story keeps shifting, depending on who is telling it or whether it is being directly presented in film. In the childhood sequence the priest exploits his authority in the school, expels Ignacio’s boyfriend, Enrique (Raúl García Forneiro), and insists that Ignacio serve his Mass. Later we hear the boy’s pure soprano singing “Deep River” at a school swimming party; a moment later there is an image of horror when Ignacio suddenly comes into view, his head seemingly split open. Mr. Almo-dóvar concedes that he drew on autobiographical memories for the school material but denies that he himself was the victim of abuse.

Sixteen years later, in 1980, Ignacio calls on Enrique, now a young director (Fele Martínez), with “The Visit,” the story of his school experience, which he hopes the latter will adapt as a film. (The adult Ignacio is played by two actors, Gael García Bernal and Francisco Boira). As Enrique reads it, some of the script is played out before our eyes. Complexity is increased by the fact that Enrique is not sure that the young author is the Ignacio he knew; this one wants to be called Angel and to play the role of Zahara, a transsexual prostitute who, in “The Visit,” blackmails Fr. Manolo while pretending to be Ignacio’s sister. Enrique nevertheless employs Angel as actor and exploits him as sexual partner.

“Bad Education” keeps reminding us that it is a movie: References to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” emphasis on the town theater that was important in the boys’ lives and the film-within-a-film that uses the same actors in flashbacks all reinforce its ambiguity. Mr. Almodóvar’s work has always been so passionate it bordered on farce; here gay male sexuality is presented explicitly with all its manipulations and regrets. The director’s sense of humor, basic humanism and refusal to judge his characters survive, but “Bad Education” offers his most downbeat ending to date.

Mr. Almodóvar deliberately leaves us in uncertainty regarding later events. Fr. Manolo has left the priesthood; now Signor Berenguer, a married man (Lluis Homar), he becomes passionately attached to Juan (another role of Gael García Bernal). Near the end Berenguer comes to Enrique and presents his version of what happened, which only raises more questions. It is worth noting that Enrique, whom we are told continues to direct movies, is far from idealized. Mr. Almodóvar understands quite well that he is distilling the sense of fantasy and endless corruption of film noir. “Bad Education” is not aiming at realism: The fluidity of sexual roles and the use of a glamorous male star in the process of becoming a transsexual suggest that lying is unavoidable, simply part of film’s deep fascination. The director says that the priests at school told him that watching movies was a sin; his response was that he had to choose sin. If his work constantly reminds audiences that they’re seeing a movie, he obviously feels that it’s a way to get a “good education.”

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 2004

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