directed by Roger Michell
Those lips, those eyes:
They seem to belong to the sketchpad of some stoned fashion designer bent on mocking his—or the culture’s—lust for outlandish ideals. The perfection of her looks was never balanced or poised but always loud, aggressive, unashamedly incongruous. Does anyone ever mention that the different features of her face, striking though they individually are, seem to have been drafted by different architectural firms? Can a visage be called postmodern? To me, this simply didn’t add up: She seemed at once excessively hypothetical and frighteningly real.
But now it all falls into place. I get what most of the world got years ago: She is a movie star, nothing more (as if there could be) and nothing less (although she’s been obliged to play less in every film till now). Notting Hill has the groundbreaking good sense to cast her as a movie star, a very Julia Roberts-like movie star. I don’t know if this smart move will qualify the British comedy for the Best Documentary Oscar, but it struck me as wholly salutary. For once, Julia wasn’t in the least bit puzzling. She would get out of a limousine, twirl her chic, glittery gown for the paparazzi and flash that smile, and I could only think: “Well, of course.” There was no question of believability; this was, in fact, exactly as believable as most people ever want movies to be.
People, in any case, go to movies to gaze at stars, and if the stars ultimately don’t have to be particularly credible as actors, or as the personalities they adopt in given roles, they do have to be credible as stars. This is why Julia Roberts would have to be conjured if she didn’t exist. Starness is a mysterious, almost mystical attribute, and she unquestionably has it. There are a few other big female stars in her league, surely—Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, etc.—but none is quite so well suited as she to a movie like Notting Hill, where being a star is supposed to connote a soft, creamy, superreal otherness and nothing else, no tangled life beyond celebrity, no complicating ties to mere ordinariness.
Anna Scott, the character Roberts plays here, is the one thing that stars must be in any film that exists primarily to fantasize about them: She is available for romance. In London shooting a movie, she stops into the quaint travel bookshop that William Thacker (Hugh Grant) runs in Notting Hill. The two stars must “meet cute,” as the formula has it, and Notting Hill gives us a protracted version of that; it is, in many ways, the film’s most clever and agreeable segment.
William of course recognizes his famous customer and is duly flustered. He dithers as only Hugh Grant can dither, making awkward, unsolicited suggestions of books about Turkey while simultaneously trying to stop another customer from shoplifting. She smiles back attractively and then leaves. A short while later he runs into her—literally—on the street near his shop and spills the drink he’s carrying all over her blouse. As a device for getting her into his nearby flat, and his dithery life, this is exactly as dumb and irredeemably cliched as it sounds. But it works. She is shortly in his grubby kitchen, where flirtation rustles its shimmery wings.
There is a crucial difference, a movie like Notting Hill makes you realize, in stars as they exist in movies and in theater. In both cases our primary impulse is to look, and to do so with as much intentness as we wish. But in the theater physical proximity means that our gaze might be apprehended and even returned, thus interrupting the essential one-sidedness of voyeuristic looking; the actor’s role is needed as the screen that allows everyone to pretend that it is the character rather than the performer who is being observed. Onscreen, however, there’s no chance that the actor can perceive the viewer, and therefore her role risks being an obstacle; it must justify itself by extending a fantasy of who she might be if she actually walked among us.
In Notting Hill, though, Julia Roberts is essentially playing herself, so we are allowed to gawk unstintingly, and the script’s first task is to remind us how much more fabulous and beautiful than mere mortals she is. This it does by surrounding her and Hugh (our wishful surrogate) with a small gallery of everyday grotesques, including divorced William’s goofy Welsh string bean of a roommate (Rhys Ifans, who’s hilarious when he’s not annoying) and gawky, pop-eyed sister, Honey (Emma Chambers). William and Honey also have a set of schlubby friends—far more schlubby than any Hugh Grant character would have in real life—whose job is to be comically ordinary and awestruck when the goddess glides into their humble midst.
Much about the tenor and aspirations of Notting Hill is explained by the fact that it comes from the pen of Richard Curtis, who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral. That sticky-sweet 1994 romantic comedy, which made a major star of Hugh Grant, became the most successful British film in history in an interesting fashion: It didn’t do much business when it opened in Britain, but then became a smash in the U.S., so that it returned home triumphantly billed as “The Movie That Conquered America.” One might reasonably assume, though, that Curtis was himself conquered, and that his infatuation with his transatlantic audience has more than an incidental connection with the romance at the heart of Notting Hill.
In fact, you might expand that idea to say that, resonance-wise, the film relays the notion that Britons currently view American pop culture much as smitten, overawed William views glamorous Anna. It is as if the old ruler-subject situation were reversed and Brits, like the rest of world, now concede the divine right of American celebrity (even to the point of worshipping the likes of Princess Di in fan-magazine fashion). But if the film is about how they view us, or our pop potentates, it is also about how they wish us to view them.
It has been observed often enough in recent years that Britain seems to be turning into a theme park version of its old self with its own active cooperation, a process that involves playing up what appeals to touristic eyes and sweeping the rest under the rug. There’s a fair amount of that going on in this film, beginning with the place that provides its title. Nearly 30 years ago, Notting Hill was the seedy district where gangster James Fox and druggie Mick Jagger had their psychedelic, gender-bending pas de deux in Roeg and Cammell’s Performance. Though the area has been considerably gentrified since then, it remains a hub of London’s large West Indian population. But you wouldn’t know that from looking at Notting Hill‘s Notting Hill,
where the black faces are few and peripheral.
Of course, what Michell, Curtis and company do to their London location is scarcely different from what Nora Ephron did to the Upper West Side in You’ve Got Mail, the recent American film that Notting Hill most resembles. It is part of the Old World charm of the latter film that one of its characters invokes classical mythology in saying William’s fate is likely to illustrate the dire consequences that befall mortals who fall in love with gods.
Fortunately for the ease of our minds in summer, however, we no longer live in a world where the old mythological punishments apply. Our current celluloid myths dictate that happy endings follow two hours of stars batting their eyes at each other and being hauled from one frothy complication to another. Notting Hill regrettably gets stupider and stupider as it goes along, and climaxes in a veritable riot of sitcommish idiocies, but it also has the unusual fascination of displaying attractive movie stars while explicitly reminding us of how much we enjoy watching them, which ends up being more uncomplicatedly pleasurable than it perhaps ought to be.
The Loss of Sexual Innocence
directed by Mike Figgis
Hands-down winner of the hotly contested Worst Film of the Year to Date trophy, The Loss of Sexual Innocence (how could it not stink, with a title like that?) comes to us from Mike Figgis, who has been riding a bobsled toward creative hell since his interesting but overrated Leaving Las Vegas was voted best film of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle four years ago. After that, Figgis did One Night Stand, which was pretty atrocious but nothing like the mind-boggling atrocity that is The Loss of Sexual Innocence.
First off, get it out of your head that this wanton waste of celluloid might at least contain a decent sex scene or two (or five or 10). It doesn’t; it is too “artistic” for that. It is also “experimental” and “daring” in that, rather than deigning to tell any sort of coherent story, it cuts among several fragmentary episodes from the life of a character named Nic (Julian Sands is his adult incarnation) and the Bible’s Adam and Eve, who are played by a white woman and a black man who emerge naked from a lake and are photographed as if posing for a deodorant commercial. You read that right: Adam and Eve. As in “allegorical.” As in deeply, unforgivably boring.
There are some forms of twee Brit pretentiousness that go beyond mere everyday pretension into the realms of the criminally insufferable. You want to rip the film out of the perpetrator’s camera, stuff it down his throat and throw him off the top of the very tall building on Madison Ave. that houses Sony Classics. I don’t like coming out of any movie simmering with murderous fantasies regarding its director, believe me. This is not a fun part of my job. I guess I can apologize to Figgis best by warning fans of his past films away from this arty, excruciating embarrassment.