Pleading innocent

Times Online / September 11, 2003
by James Christopher

Say goodbye to the teen sexpot. James Christopher falls for the sweet charms of the new muses

I’VE NEVER seen a muse quite like Scarlett Johansson, who made such a splash at the Venice Film Festival as the neglected wife in Sofia Coppola’s satire Lost in Translation. She is unspoilt, beautiful and tantalisingly out of reach; as potent and languid a vision as the one that beguiled Visconti in Death in Venice. Yet she is far more accessible and vulnerable. Her voice is a low, measured drawl. Her skin is as pale as a Nordic peach. What’s refreshing is how completely unselfconscious she is on screen about her appeal.

Most young actresses can’t grow up fast enough, as if success were simply a question of Botox injections and glossy- magazine cleavage. It often is: Hollywood rarely turns down a febrile minx. Think of a naked Mena Suvari in a bath full of rose petals in American Beauty. Or Brittany Murphy pulling up her skirt for Eminem in a filthy utensil factory in 8 Mile.

Hollywood will always need these spicy tweenies and their nude ambitions. But it is becoming increasingly sensitive to the notion that less might be more: that beauty doesn’t always have to be devoured, raped or plundered; or merely a Revlon façade for scheming bitches, manipulative sirens and weepy victims.

The trouble is finding actresses who can do it without affecting it — and still be intelligent, self-possessed and alluring. Even Ludivine Sagnier, the French belle who clashes memorably with Charlotte Rampling in François Ozon’s classy thriller Swimming Pool, is guilty of flogging her body before her talent despite the high-minded quality of her movies. The poster of her reclining in a bikini (you can find 50-acre versions plastered all over the Underground) is already an iconic, defining image of her short, glistening career.

Johansson is almost unique among muses in how she handles her admirers. She is a feckless tease, whose physical charms never knowingly overshadow her acting skill. She is not the only star in this league. She is simply the best and most prolific example of the stainless muse whom you corrupt at your peril. There was Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer, Sean Connery in Just Cause, Steve Buscemi in Ghost World, Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn’t There, and latterly Colin Firth in Girl with a Pearl Earring.

The camera is genuinely besotted with the way Johansson is lit in the last, which is as it should be given that the hero is Vermeer. The actress plays a humble, almost invisible, maid who subtly oils Colin Firth’s highbrow artist through a creative block, to the horror of his household.

Kate Hudson was originally asked to play the role, but she dropped out, or perhaps the director Peter Webber got cold feet. Hudson would have been quite wrong. Christina Ricci would have been ridiculous. These brazen temptresses wheel their sexuality and Hollywood pedigree around like excess baggage. Others are doomed never to turn a worldly innocent into an object of desire without looking grimy. Kate Beckinsale, Gwyneth Paltrow and Helena Bonham Carter — the bluestocking brigade of A-list Austen heroines — have never carnally convinced. Johansson is able to make both journeys in a single film without being, as Polonius might put it, soiled wi’ th’ working.

Precious few young actresses are able to do this, but there are some sterling exponents. Sarah Polley (24), like Johansson, seems to have cropped up from nowhere. Yet the star of My Life Without Me has 34 films under her belt and half a dozen television serials. Despite her striking resemblance to Uma Thurman, she has a gift for making terrible sexual choices look entirely innocent.

So too does Zooey Deschanel, the 23-year-old heroine of David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls, who has a knack of breaking hard hearts by giving herself away to rotten ones. The artless joy of Romola Garai’s performance as Cassandra in Tim Fywell’s I Capture the Castle is perhaps the pick of the bunch. In a film that has the magnetic appeal of an English classic, Garai is an adolescent filter of emotions that she faithfully charts but doesn’t have the wit to decipher.

What these muses share, apart from an obvious desire to keep their clothes on, is that they are not saints or prudes by any stretch of anyone’s imagination.

Rather they reinvigorate a nostalgia that Hollywood has silently yearned for since Audrey Hepburn: cool wit and confusion in tight corners, with the occasional knee-trembler that has more in common with Brief Encounter than Bridget Jones. In fact, Johansson’s kiss with Bill Murray in Lost in Translation is as dramatic and chaste as Celia Johnson’s clinch with Trevor Howard. Curiously the thrill of both films is the sheer waste of erotic steam that precedes the moment.

The influence of these actresses may transform for ever our notion of the teenage sexpot. There’s a palpable lack of patience with sheer greed and froth. Less is more for the New Muses. The real surprise is the grip they are exerting on some of Hollywood’s deepest pockets and seasoned players — most notably, male actors such as Bill Murray (and even Jack Nicholson) who are suddenly prepared and sensible enough to play their age in low-budget films for a fraction of their salaries.

The influence of these actresses may transform for ever our notion of the teenage sexpot. There’s a palpable lack of patience with sheer greed and froth. Less is more for the New Muses. The real surprise is the grip they are exerting on some of Hollywood’s deepest pockets and seasoned players — most notably, male actors such as Bill Murray (and even Jack Nicholson) who are suddenly prepared and sensible enough to play their age in low-budget films for a fraction of their salaries.

I sense a sea-change too, not a revolution, on this year’s festival circuit.

The desire to be endlessly shocked, sickened or titillated by youths — with or without their smalls — will always exist. But there’s a palpable reaction to the teenage excesses espoused by the Larry Clarks and Gaspar Noés. The nine-minute rape and murder of Monica Belucci in Noé’s Irreversible at Cannes last year was the high-water mark. Before that critics had become increasingly inured to the routine abuse of Laura Dern by road-movie drifters and killers, the hidden wounds reopened by Emily Watson and Samantha Morton in film after film, and the self-destruct button located in the middle of Drew Barrymore’s forehead.

Will Johansson and her like lead us out of this amoral murk? Serendipity plays a part. How we perceive our starlets from generation to generation is highly revealing about our cultural shifts in attitude. The New Muses are gracing films which as yet have no natural berth in the multiplex. The idea of centre-spread nudity being a secondary consideration might have something to do with it.

But ultimately the pulling power of these muses can hardly be denied even on the most basic level. Why watch Reese Witherspoon fluffing about in a summer pudding for a $15 million pay cheque when you can watch Romola Garai grappling with decent old-fashioned story lines that provoke, seduce and entertain? There is clearly a pressing need to slot their work into multiplexes alongside the fairground rides.

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