The saddest, fullest moment in Shopgirl comes when the titular character, Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes), makes a brief trip home to Vermont. Here she spends a few snowy hours with her parents, stoic Catherine (Frances Conroy) and silent Vietnam veteran Dan (Sam Bottoms). Watching them, Mirabelle sees her own possibilities unfold before her. As Mirabelle stands in the hallway, speaking on the phone with her estranged lover Ray (Steve Martin), the camera pushes in on Catherine seated at the teeny kitchen table, approximating Mirabelle’s probing, curious, and finally disappointed look. She doesn’t want to be her mother, and yet she cannot help but be.
Having moved to in Los Angeles where she works the fancy gloves counter at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, Mirabelle has met Ray at work. He sees in her something melancholy and needy, something he can fix, at least temporarily. And so he gives her expensive presents — gloves, dresses, jewelry, meals — in return for her seeming attachment. She believes she’s attached, too. Even though she’s not moved by Ray in an erotic or even particularly sensual way, she is at ease with him, and she appreciates his attentions to her. She doesn’t appreciate his distance — which reminds her, though she doesn’t say it, of her father’s emotional unavailability, his secrets and his pain. And yet, when she’s faced with staying with her parents for the holidays or going to New York with Ray, she looks at her mother, so alone even next to her father, and chooses Ray.
It’s a fleeting moment, but it shows what’s sharpest about Shopgirl, its nuanced indications of Mirabelle’s thinking. The camera and Danes are more than up to this delicate task, and so it is disheartening that the movie relies more often on explanations. These explanations, which end up sounding smarmy and small, despite their gestures toward poetry, are voiced by Martin, who wrote the screenplay based on his short novella. The movie begins by introducing Mirabelle at her job, lonely and fragile, the camera observing her carefully: it comes on her by tracking through the department store, over makeup displays and past evening gown fittings, to find her at last, gazing vacantly into space at the gloves counter. Framed by dark curtains on the window behind her, surrounded by elegance and ennui, she’s yearning for romance: “What Mirabelle needs is an omniscient voice,” he says, “to spotlight her.”
But even as the film provides her with such voiceovered attention, the omniscience seems at once stylish and trite, and certainly self-conscious. This makes the framing of Mirabelle something of a problem, for even as she is obviously wonderful and fragile and deserving of someone’s devotion, the film also suggests that she is lost without that someone, without a spotlight. Though Danes’ evocative, subtle portrayal actually suggests otherwise, the character is repeatedly reduced to reactions to two men, Ray and Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman).
Though plainly constrained by their desires and projections, Mirabelle does evince some life of her own. In between her day job and her apparently passionate art (she makes drawings at night, her head down as she scrapes charcoal on paper at her kitchen table), Mirabelle feeds her cat Sylvia and takes her dirty clothes to the local Laundromat. Here she meets Jeremy, unshaved and wearing a torn t-shirt, clever and amiably clumsy in his efforts to impress her (“I am an okay guy, by the way”).
Though they eventually go on a date, Mirabelle is less than thrilled by his distractedness (he’s also an artist, actually a designer of fonts and advertising logos for amplifiers) and fondness for talking about himself. Within days of a vaguely comic sexual encounter with Jeremy (he offers to use a Jiffy baggie), she’s approached at work by the impeccably groomed and designer-suited Ray. Flattered by his attention, she goes out with him: their dates are more formal, his manners more precise, though again, she’s not exactly bowled over. Though Mirabelle does appreciate Ray’s penchant for detail and is moved by his doting, she’s also aware that he maintains an emotional distance.
When Mirabelle rejects Jeremy in favor of Ray, the younger man takes off on a road trip with a rock band, along the way coming to understand (via generic “How to Understand Women” DVDs) how he didn’t treat Mirabelle with the proper respect and interest. At the same time, the movie tracks Mirabelle’s experiences with Ray, who repeatedly disappoints her, by spending days in Seattle, where he has a his second, equally expensively-outfitted home, and by cheating on her with a former girlfriend (Rebecca Pidgeon) and telling Mirabelle as if in a supremely clunky attempt to push her away.
It’s at this moment that Mirabelle, following much crying on Ray’s bed as he sits perplexed (“I thought you understood”), goes to Vermont. When she tries to not turn into her mom, she only turns more like her. Until she has another option, which is, in truth, more of the same option, a man who believes he can appreciate her best.
Meticulously crafted, Anand Tucker’s film is not so overtly emotionally adventurous as his long-ago previous movie, Hilary and Jackie (1998), but it is similarly interested in the built-in deceptions of romance and the cruelties of self-protective decisions. Though Mirabelle briefly envies the seeming wisdom and cynicism of fellow shopgirl and more experienced dater Lisa (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras), she soon realizes that her own sensitivities — even her artistic sensibilities — are less superficial, more intrinsically “valuable.”
At least, this is the film’s judgment. And this is the most troubling aspect of the film. For all its seeming delicacy, its view of Mirabelle as perfect, precious object is decidedly limited. Though Danes is a lovely, subtle performer, and Peter J. Suschitzky’s slow-moving camera showcases her unusual beauty, the film never grants Mirabelle her own life: she remains a child-woman in search of a male redeemer. Her men are manifestly imperfect and yet, as happens too often, their versions of her define her desires.