Pedro Almodóvar has tagged his follow-up to 2002's Oscar-nabbing drama Talk To Her as a film noir. Granted, there's more cross-dressing than double-crossing, while Jose Luis Alcaine's photography favours candy colours over sinister shadows. But if it's darkness you're after, look no further than the themes: child abuse, sibling rivalry, drug addiction...
And in classic noir style, the storyline's far from simple - the Spanish writer/ director serving up a dense layer-cake of reality, semi-fantasy and flashbacks. At the centre of events is Ignacio's (Gael García Bernal) autobiographical short story. In some scenes we're watching an 'imagined' version of the tale; in others, it's an adaptation of the story. Confused? You won't be, Almodóvar gliding between the strata with ease, his ploy of tweaking the frame ratio to cue transitions proving particularly handy.
Trouble is, Bad Education impresses more than it engages. Wrapped within its fancy Russian-doll structure is a melodrama, yet one that's curiously lacking in emotional power. For starters, you'll remember the schooldays sequence more for its soft-focus nostalgia than its sting - Almodóvar's insistence that he's not out to avenge his own religious education perhaps explaining his tame approach to Catholic Church corruption. Still, these scenes pack more punch than the finalé - a truth-unveiling that arrives some time after your curiosity has waned.
The blame's best laid at the feet of our two protagonists, neither proving capable of sustaining sympathy. Designated as the flick's 'femme fatale', Bernal's a charmer at first but loses appeal as his cold cunning comes to the fore, while Martínez's haughty auteur is even easier to resist. The man of this all-male match is Javier Camara, the Talk To Her star shimmering all too briefly as a drag queen.
At least the film's vibrant visual glitz impresses, from the moving-collage opening credits to a swimming-pool interlude that's like a David Hockney brought to life. Ironic, though, that the last image you see is the word 'passion' blown up to fill the screen, the actual movie never quite managing the same.
Gorgeous to gaze at, but the emotion of Almodóvar's best work is missing. A film well-schooled in technique but not in touching the viewer.