You’re very well dressed for a symbolic logician.
— Mirabelle (Claire Danes)
This is a film about grownup emotions.
— Anand Tucker, commentary, Shopgirl
Oh yes, Steve, if you ever listen to this, I never quite got “Now I’m your watch. I think it’s great and a little bit strange, but maybe you could explain it to me one day.”
— Anand Tucker, commentary, Shopgirl
Director Anand Tucker fully appreciates Shopgirl. In his commentary for the new DVD, he discusses its many details — for it is a movie comprised of remarkable, often wondrous details — in ways that underline his affection for process and discovery. While he is surely, as he describes himself, a meticulous planner and dedicated storyboarder, he also loves to see anew, to realize color and nuance, to be surprised by the smallest element.
Indeed, as he watches his film again for the commentary recording, Tucker can hardly suppress his delight in what he sees. He tends to speak in wide, elegiac washes of words. His commentary is the reason to own this DVD, whether or not you’re as fond of his film as he is. His language is spectacular.
As the first trick shot takes you from over L.A. down into Neimans, his language is as rhythmic as his imagery. The intent, Tucker says, is to
Take you from way up high over the big sprawling metropolis, the lonely metropolis that is L.A., and in and down over the dawn. And we’re looking for someone, in this world, in this glitzy glamorous world of the department store, there’s all sorts of candy colors and beautiful gaudy baubles. This seemed to sum up for me the kind of one aspect of Los Angeles that I think most people seem to think about if you don’t come from L.A.
But still, Tucker persists, his film, the film he so loves, is not about that L.A. It is, instead, about an L.A. populated with “ordinary people just like you and me, getting on with their lives.” He would be ordinary by not being from L.A. (he was born in Bangkok, raised in Hong Kong, now living in London) and perhaps, originally being a documentary maker; that is, he’s not inclined to make flashy features or scads of money (he directed the difficult, exquisite Hilary and Jackie).
His description of Claire Danes, who plays his “ordinary” protagonist, Mirabelle, reveals as well Tucker’s inclination not only to see deeply, but also to find in surfaces all sorts of connections, to see the world as a series of delicate associations.
She has this extraordinary quality of being able to be ordinary as well as beautiful. Very much like the movie stars of old, like Ingrid Bergman or Audrey Hepburn, she has that ability to be up on the big screen and for you just to lose yourself in her face. She invites you into herself, and lets you feel all her icky emotions and you feel all your emotions too. It’s a kind of quite unsettling experience.
Looking on Mirabelle at the gloves counter at Saks Fifth Avenue, where she works, Tucker says she’s “stuck away in a dusty musty fusty corner” (he elaborates, charmingly and excessively: “Who buys gloves in Los Angeles today? So I guess she doesn’t have a lot to do”), and lonely, living in a plain apartment in Silverlake, apart from the glossy surfaces of her day job. As the camera pulls out from her apartment building, an opposite direction from its approach to her at film’s start, Tucker recalls the effort of that movement, that it was on a “rope, wobbly,” with “five men running around pulling it.”
He uses this brief moment as the occasion to name some favorite cinematic innovators, who used “tricks of cinema to help you feel emotions,” Michael Powell and Emmett Pressburger (especially Black Narcissus), as well as Wong Kar Wei (In the Mood for Love). Pausing as Mirabelle has her first date with Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), the “terrible appalling loser” she meets in a Laundromat, Tucker notes the lighting and the color of the scene: “I’m struck by how luminously beautiful and dark the film looks, in a good way.”
As such design indicates, Mirabelle is less than thrilled by Jeremy’s distractedness (like her, he’s 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 (Steve Martin). Flattered by his carefulness, 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.
Shopgirl, as Tucker sees it, is a kind of noir, an “emotional thriller”: “What’s keeping you on the edge of your seat is what’s happening inside Mirabelle? I think her question is, who will love me? And that’s a question she’s looking to be answered throughout the movie.” When her date with Jeremy proves less than momentous — he’s a font designer with no money or even much visible interest in Mirabelle — she finds herself enchanted by Ray Porter (Steve Martin, who wrote the script based on his novella). The film goes on to trace the strain of this relationship, as Ray is utterly unable to love her (“He’s frightened of her,” says Tucker, “I definitely related to the commitment-phobic aspects of Ray Porter”). He does, however, like to lavish attention and gifts on her (Tucker calls it “the dance of courtship”). And at first, Mirabelle mistakes this attention for love.
Her “internal journey” is effected in various ways, frankly made more interesting as Tucker talks about them. “We would repaint the colors of her walls in her apartment from scene to scene,” he says, “slowly either bleeding them of color or making them more intense, so that in the back of your head, you would feel what was going on.” Tucker notes the unlikelihood of his making an “emotional mood piece” with a studio (and not just any studio, but the king of the world, Disney): “I did feel a responsibility to deliver to the studio a movie that could work in the marketplace.”
In part, this meant working closely with Martin, who has a history with Touchstone (Bringing Down the House, two Father of the Brides). At times, the comedy Tucker sees as part of this “balance” is a little slapsticky, and Mirabelle’s serial dilemmas is too explicitly framed in Ray’s frequent, eerily knowing voiceovers: “What Mirabelle needs,” he says, “is an omniscient voice to spotlight her.” This language, cute and self-conscious, verging on smug, suggests that while Mirabelle is wonderful and fragile and deserving of someone’s devotion, she is also lost without that someone, without a spotlight. Though Danes’ evocative, subtle portrayal actually suggests otherwise, the character is repeatedly reduced to her reactions to Ray and Jeremy.
This is particularly devastating in the scene where Ray, as Tucker says, “breaks Mirabelle’s heart.” He has cheated on her with a former girlfriend (Rebecca Pidgeon) and tells Mirabelle as if in a supremely clunky attempt to push her away. As Tucker watches Danes writhing in agony on a bed, as Martin’s voiceover reads the letter Ray has written and hand-delivered to her — it’s on the bed between them throughout the scene — his voice catches. “It’s so upsetting, because she really was upset. I felt a bit uncomfortable myself, and a bit lost.”
The source of Mirabelle’s lostness comes clear when, after this sad scene, she goes 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 Ray, 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.
It’s a fleeting moment, but it is stunning, exemplifying what Shopgirl does well, its nuanced indications of Mirabelle’s thinking. 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.”
For all its strange delicacy, Shopgirl‘s view of Mirabelle as perfect, precious object is decidedly limited. Though Danes is a lovely, subtle performer, and the slow-moving, acutely observant camera showcases her unusual beauty, the film never grants Mirabelle her own life. That is a point, of course, that she is produced as a vision by the men who adore her. But it’s a strategy that contains her as 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 options. As she phrases it, “I can either hurt now, or hurt later.” For Tucker, she’s able to move through several “movements,” which he adroitly describes in terms of art:
For me, we’ve moved from the Modiglianis of the early part of the movie, into the… Rothkos, all about big dark emotions, and then the monochromatic depression and slightly sad afterglow of the relationship that can no longer be. And here we find ourselves in what I call the Picasso part of the film, full of complications, and you kind of mix up the colors, and jagged, and it’s kind of a more complete picture of life.
Irrepressible, Tucker makes his movie come alive. Appreciating again, he describes Mirabelle’s new openness to colors, “which I hope,” he adds, “isn’t too metaphorical and wussy a way of looking at it.”