Nothing has turned out as expected for Nora, the drifting, doleful heroine played by Parker Posey in Broken English, writer/ director Zoe Cassavetes’s feature debut. Confront-ed in her mid-30s by a sinkhole of unaddressed expectations—only a few of them her own— we meet Nora as she attempts to slog through a backlog of doubt and uncertainty without going under completely.
The opening sequence—a wry riff on the primping montage so common to this film’s spiritual godmother, Sex and the City—features Posey dressing for the fifth-anniversary party of her friend Audrey (Drea de Matteo), whose husband is the man that Nora’s mother (Gena Rowlands) insists she should have married. The party girl no more, Posey imbues this silent ritual with a world of resignation and burgeoning resentment, the novelty of pulling on one more party dress long extinguished.
There are key similarities between Nora’s foggy neurosis and the characters Posey recently played in Fay Grim and The Oh in Ohio; if urban female confusion is the new suburban male confusion, surely Posey’s lost and wary eyes are the face of that angst. Nora lives alone and hates her job coddling the VIP guests of a Manhattan boutique hotel. Before sleeping with a fussy movie star on the premises (a mohawked, smooth-talkin’ Justin Theroux), Nora admits that she always thought she’d work in the art world. A beautiful woman with the curious big-city habit of accepting loneliness as her lot, Posey is beguiling for the first third of Broken English; lovely, fragile, and tense, she’s the lonely girl who screens her phone calls and winces at compliments with tweaked ambivalence. Combining Posey’s performance with lingering pacing and an eye for alienation in a city of millions, Cassavetes’s standard material takes on the promise of something fresh.
Alas, we must wait on for a fully realized investigation of what Nora’s mother suggests is eating—and paralyzing—young women in the city today: too many choices. When the Man- hattan man shortage threatens to doom the inexhaustibly stylish Nora (this girl has cute tops for days) to a life of closet rearrangement, a charming Frenchman swoops in with some grade-A Euro-lovin’. Julian (Melvil Poupaud) is instantly smitten by Nora’s letter-perfect, twitchy New Yorker routine, complete with a public panic attack. Their affair is brief but tender, and Nora’s timid practicality prevents her from pursuing it past his stay in New York. . . .
Until, that is, she has an epiphany and takes off to Paris in search of Julian, and the film devolves into stilted-foreigner scenarios and self-help platitudes. Nora’s initially existential problems become nothing that a romantic pick- me-up can’t fix, and efforts to indicate otherwise feel tacked-on and disingenuous. Posey remains touching as the woman with happiness in sight but bewilderingly out of reach, yet in paraphrasing the final lines of Before Sunrise for Broken English‘s closing scene, the director only highlights how her film suffers in comparison.