April 26, 2006
Shopgirl (2005) was marketed as that year’s Lost in Translation (2004) – a love story between a young, idealistic woman and an older, disillusioned man – only it really wasn’t, people seemed to realize this and the film disappeared fairly quickly from theatres. The woman in question is Mirabelle (Danes) and she works a ho-hum job at the glove counter at Saks 5th Avenue in Beverly Hills – it’s not very glamourous, certainly not like working the perfume counter – but she also dreams of being an artist.
Right from the beginning, the film creates a world filled with retro-nuances; from the way Mirabelle dresses (very 1940s) to the turquoise bowl she uses to feed her cat to her dingbat apartment building (circa 1950s or 1960s). Even the store she works at has a retro look that acts almost as a lament for a dying breed that is being gradually phased out over time. Mirabelle’s surroundings define her character. She is something of a lonely soul – surrounded by the hustle and bustle of customers at work but not really connecting with any of them. She drives home on the freeway in a sea of fellow commuters but is still isolated by her car.
Mirabelle does her laundry at an old fashioned looking Laundromat and it is there that she meets Jeremy (Schwartzman), a scruffy looking chatterbox who is also an artist (he works in stencils). He mooches change off her and asks for her phone number. Jeremy comes off as presumptuous, abrasive and a little too cocky. Is this his armour to protect or insulate himself from others? One gets the impression that his gregariousness has a whiff of desperation and that he too is a lonely soul. Needless to say, their relationship gets off to an incredibly awkward start.
One day, she meets Ray (Martin), a man with very expensive tastes in gloves who buys a pair of black ones and then mails them to her with an invite to dinner at a swanky restaurant. He is everything that Jeremy is not – classy, refined and wealthy. There is a vast difference in their age and he comes off as a little stuffy, a little boring and certainly not as dynamically quirky as Jeremy. Mirabelle falls in love with Ray but for him it’s a sexual relationship and he exerts subtle but definite control over her in their relationship – often to chilling effect. Ray doesn’t know how to be himself or to be sincere. He treats Mirabelle like a possession. Jeremy, however, is willing to change for her – something that Ray is unable to do.
Jason Schwartzman’s presence throws off the film’s inviting, romantic retro-vibe. He is one of the most idiosyncratic actors this side of Crispin Glover and his performance is quite mannered, but in an offbeat way. It threatens to upset the film’s delicate balance. Just when this is about to happen his character disappears from the movie for most of the middle third. And then something interesting happens to his character – he undergoes a transformation that doesn’t exactly soften all the edges off his character but does show a maturation which makes him that much more appealing.
Visually, Shopgirl is reminiscent of Wong Kar-Wai’s movies and Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997) – we are seeing Los Angeles through the eyes of an outsider. Shopgirl is a movie full of observations of human behaviour which makes sense because Steve Martin, who not only wrote the novella on which this film is based on, he also wrote the screenplay, is a comedian. To be good at that you have to be a keen observer of human nature – looking at people’s mannerisms and then holding up a mirror to them, which is what this film does so well.
“Evolution of a Novella: The Making of Shopgirl.” Steve Martin based much of his novella (and the screenplay) on what he describes as a “lifetime of experience” and talking with others about their relationships. Anand Tucker directed Hilary and Jackie (1998) and was attracted to the reality of the screenplay. He was able to bring a fresh sensibility because he wanted to take the audience on what he describes as an “emotional journey.” For a standard making of featurette this is very well done with all the participants having intelligent things to say, raising it a bit above the usual fluff.
There are two deleted scenes. One shows Mirabelle waiting for Ray to call her and listening to Jeremy’s message from the road (which, in the movie we only see from his perspective). The other scene reinforces Ray’s control over Mirabelle in their relationship and was wisely cut.
Finally, there is an audio commentary by director Anand Tucker. He imagined the film in five different movements. He wanted to make a timeless movie and felt that Saks had that kind of feeling – even moreso than Neiman’s (the store in the novella). He describes the film as a journey of Mirabelle finding herself. Tucker cites the colour palette of Powell and Pressburger’s films and also Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) as influences. The director also talks, in detail, about how the various aspects of the movie (the music, the use of colour, the lighting, etc.) help translate the emotional journey Mirabelle undergoes during the film.