‘An Education’ offers far more than a glimpse into foreign travel, culture for impressionable young women
November 30, 2009
For any of us women—especially those who still consider themselves young or young-at-heart and long to experience the thrills and pleasures that travel and foreign cultures provide—the recently released Sony Pictures Classics film “An Education” is a must-see. (Here in the United States, it’s in relatively limited release, which is a shame because it’s truly one of the smartest, most thoughtful films to hit the big screen in ages.)
I recently saw it with one of my best girlfriends from university, someone who knew me before I became completely obsessed with all things international. But because my friend knows me so well, she knew I’d be one of the few people who would be clamoring to see it with her. (Another very good girlfriend, one whom I’ve traveled abroad with and spent countless hours sharing my dreams of seeing the world, demanded I call her as soon as I saw them film so we could dissect its deeper meaning in each of our lives.)
Here’s the gist: Set in suburban London in 1961, “An Education” is told from the perspective of Jenny (played by the luminous British actress Carey Mulligan), a bright and inquisitive 16-year-old in a private high school. Although she’s being pushed toward an Oxford education by her strict but well-meaning middle-class parents, she’s drawn to all things French. She loves the language, tossing off phrases en français, lounging in her bedroom while listening to sophisticated French chanteuse Juliette Gréco. And she longs to visit Paris in this drab and dreary post-World War II London era. Enter the mysterious and dashing David (played to perfection by actor Peter Saarsgard), a man in his mid-30s (!!) who offers her and her cello a ride home during a pounding rainstorm.
You can guess where this travels from here: David introduces her to a sophisticated world filled with hazy smoke from French Galoise cigarettes, his glamorous but shady friends, late-night supper clubs, and art auctions. Eventually, he get her parents’ permission to take her away for a weekend in Paris. Who of us—regardless of our age—wouldn’t dream of playing dress-up and strolling along the Seine River arm-in-arm with a handsome homme who wants to show us the finer cultural things in life? But it wouldn’t be a film if David didn’t turn out to have fatal flaws. I won’t give them or the ending away, but suffice it to say despite the fact he offers entrée into a glamorous second life, he’s hardly what he seems.
“An Education” resonates with me on so many levels. Although I’m now WAY older than Jenny was in the film, I still have that sense of wanderlust about the world. And although I’ve literally been around the world, there’s still so much I want to experience and to learn about foreign cultures and places and languages and music. Like Jenny, I’m passionate about everything French and try to incorporate as much of it into my daily and often stifling Midwestern life as much as possible. And although I’m slow to admit it, I’m often naïve when it comes to the underlying truth about men, especially when they seem to appear out of nowhere, almost as if they walked off a movie set, all mysterious and fascinating (and speak in some sexy foreign accent—you name which one).
I’m feeling way too introspective these days, having survived recent intense encounters with a couple of European men. While both were charismatic and worldly and well-traveled and smart, neither turned out to be what I first thought. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad people. But often we project onto others—friends, parents, children, lovers—what we crave and need them to be at that point in our lives. I’m reminded of the Maya Angelou quote my sister used to share: “When people show you who they are, believe them.” That would have been great advice for Jenny in “An Education”—and Lord knows I should have kept that in mind before getting involved with either of my two.
But part of learning—yes, of an education—is understanding when we’ve allowed ourselves to get caught up in the fantasy of what COULD be, not what is. And part of it is having the good sense and self-awareness to move on, even when our smarter selves wonder how we ended up in such ridiculous situations in the first place. Rather than beat ourselves up, we should acknowledge and yes, even APPRECIATE that even painful lessons can ultimately be good for us—IF we actually learn from them.
If you’re not intrigued yet, check out the film review written by my always-thoughtful former Chicago Sun-Times colleague, Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert. What spoke to me were these lines from his October review: “So young women, let this movie offer useful advice. When a man seems too good to be true, he probably isn’t—good, or true. We all make mistakes when we’re growing up. Sometimes we learn from them. If we’re lucky, we can even learn during them. And you must certainly see Paris….”
How many of you UrbanTravelGirls does THIS resonate with? Even as I enter my fourth decade, I see I’ve still got PLENTY of learning to do, even as I pack my passport and venture off into places unknown.
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