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Shopgirl Review

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by Simon Crust May 13, 2006

    Shopgirl Review

    The human race is an inherently social species; despite the various horrors depicted on the news with regard mans inhumanity to his fellow man, or the newest report that the latest generation is lacking in basic communication skills; we have an inherent need gather, to socialise, to belong. The infant child is completely unable to fend for itself, this total reliance on its mother and subsequent family is the first step to the social animal it will become; we live in communities, towns and cities in unimaginable numbers with one underlying factor, the need to be loved. It is out of that love and the pairing of the sexes that results in propagation, thus the continuation of the species is assured, but more than that, the family unit is contained and the offspring will obtain the nurture it needs to continue the cycle of life. And yet, even though so many people want the same thing, so many people feel alone, even in a crowded room. For here is the paradox, we all want our individuality, we need our own 'space', these two conflicting emotions are in constant turmoil, there is no easy answer, it's part of that overriding abstract we call life. And life is very hard to imitate, try as we might with film, theatre or TV. We view these platforms for their entertainment, the escapism. A way out of our own lives and into someone else's because, for some reason, someone else's life always seems better than our own, while the voyeur in us all allows satisfaction from the problems of others.

    Shopgirl, an original novella by Steve Martin, has been faithfully adapted, by Martin himself, to the big screen. The story is deceptively simple, and yet overtly complex. It centres on three central characters, Mirabelle (Claire Danes), Ray (Steve Martin) and Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) and the complicated 'love triangle' that entangles them. Mirabelle is an aspiring artist, from Vermont, still paying off her student dept, living alone in Los Angelis and working in the dress glove department of the upmarket store Saks. Ray is a fifty something entrepreneur, plenty of money, charisma and one not looking to settle. Jeremy is a bit of a drifter, a font designer working for an amplifier sales company, he is rather socially inept and self centred. However all three have one thing in common, a need to feel wanted and it is this inherent loneliness that draws the characters together.

    Mirabelle and Jeremy meet first, in a launderette, they strike up a short friendship that becomes a date and eventually a one night stand as Mirabelle desperately reaches out to feel needed. Realising their incompatibility Mirabelle creates distance and when is successfully wooed by Ray opts to follow that route instead. Ray wines, dines and seduces Mirabelle in a way Jeremy could never hope to, and after their first night tries to explain to Mirabelle he only wants a sexual relationship; Mirabelle doesn't hear this thinking there is something more. Jeremy meanwhile takes to the road with a band, on the pretext of selling them more amplifiers, but while there has an epiphany of sorts. The band leader teaches him about self, and relationships, and though it takes time Jeremy begins to change inwardly, becoming far more aware of his surroundings and the feelings of others, his desire for a stronger relationship out ways the sexual and he decides to pursue Mirabelle on that footing. During this time Ray and Mirabelle's relationship goes through some ups and down, Ray sleeps with another woman and his confession devastates her. On the brink or break up Mirabelle returns to her family but neither are able to bare the loneliness they share apart and agree to a weekend away; this time though without the sex. Perhaps a turning point as a couple, Ray is unwilling to commit, yet is unable to do so, Mirabelle wanting so desperately to cling to love is unwilling to accept nothing less than that; the relationship from that point it doomed. All is not lost for Mirabelle, though, as Jeremy in his changed persona and new outlook for commitment surpasses Ray as a lover and a friend. Mirabelle becoming more confident in herself, follows her hearts desire for her artistic work and her new love, she finally has a chance for happiness.

    On the surface the film is quite simplistic; boy meets girl, girl leaves boy, girl meets man, girl leaves man, boy gets girl back; but where the complication comes in is between the interactions of the characters. Martin has clearly defined the limits of the character emotions and this has been borne out with Anand Tucker's direction. Tucker opens the film brilliantly, the camera travels from the outside world, through the glitz of makeup up, to centre on a bored girl alone at a counter; sidestep to see her take off a shoe and flex her foot to humanise her within this inhuman condition. The second shot of Mirabelle is in a foetal position in her bed, the camera zooms out and out fades to the night sky, the bedroom light becoming one of the stars; if ever there was a shot to encompass the feeling of loneliness this is it. It is wonderfully bookended with a near replication of the shot, this time though Mirabelle is partnered with her lover; alone together. The relationship between Ray and Mirabelle dominates the film, as they move beyond the sexual as is inevitable, Ray always holds something back while Mirabelle gives her all. In the beginning he is charming and seductive, always showering her with gifts, he is superficial, he wants a superficial lover; Mirabelle will never be that, the closer they become the further apart they drift. Ironically it is the final break up that inspires Mirabelle to find her true path. And whilst her journey is the one most identify with personally I think Jeremy's own is far more interesting. In the beginning he is an almost loathsome character, self centred, irritable, and ultimately unlikeable; it is only the crushing loneliness that brings him and Mirabelle together. His nature is one that a relationship will never last, and when Ray comes into the picture he is dropped like a hot brick. It is thisbreak up that inspires him to follow his destiny (of sorts) in going on the road, an actual journey to mirror his emotional journey, Jeremy begins to see and appreciate the failings in himself and his awakening feelings for Mirabelle. At the end, after their respective journeys they can find a joy together that neither would previously have even considered.

    Shopgirl is an odd little film, it is not funny in the comedic sense of the work, neither is it romantic in the loving sense of the word; but together there is a charm that the film has that is difficult to pigeon hole. A great deal rests on the shoulders of the main cast, and they perform admirably, Danes is particularly alluring and one could easily fall for her. Equally Schwartzman as cringe worthy as he is at the beginning is just right to carry the part into a likable, indeed lovable, character. Martin, in a role as straight as it comes, proves that he can act too! In the end then, why was I not bowled over by this little slice of life? Perhaps because of the depressing air of inevitability that is prevalent through every scene, perhaps because the picture is so dark as to mirror loneliness of the mind, perhaps because the happy ending was not enough to outshine all the heartache preceding it. In truth perhaps it is all of these. Finally it was a shame that it was felt to add a voice over; it was completely unnecessary, and to a point confusing to have Martin himself do it; as it is not told from Ray's point of view, rather an unnamed narrator, odd choice. Shopgirl is a critical success and winner of a few awards to boot, I'm sure it will have many fans, though those that wish to see a 'Steve Martin film' will be sadly let down, but as for me, I'll leave it.