I Dream of Julia

It’s no more Ms. Nice Woman for Julia Roberts in Notting Hill.

Notting Hill
Directed by Roger Michell
Universal Pictures

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Fine Line Features

Imagine that you’re a modestly ordinary fellow invited to a humble dinner party, that you ask if you can bring a date, and that you show up with Julia Roberts: “Hi, this is Julia. Where do we put our coats?” Jaws drop; people fall all over themselves; buddies, goggle-eyed, take you aside: “How did you manage that?” What a shallow, empty, and pathetic reverie: having one’s worth enhanced by a gorgeous celebrity. And how irresistible.

The scene described above is the heart of Notting Hill, except that Julia Roberts is called Anna Scott–great actress, magazine cover girl, object of worldwide idolatry and scrutiny. The modestly ordinary fellow, meanwhile–the owner of a struggling travel-book shop in the eponymous London neighborhood–is impersonated by Hugh Grant, who has made a specialty of teasing ordinary modesty into extraordinary adorableness. The film, directed by Roger Michell from a script by Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, 1994) is a brainy weave of satire and fantasy; it would take a neurosurgeon to unwind its trenchant observations of our celebrity-infatuated culture from its masturbatory, People magazine-worthy pipe dreams. In this, I suppose, Notting Hill is remarkably in tune with the Zeitgeist.

The movie isn’t simply a fantasy of a commoner winning a princess, however; it’s also a fantasy of a princess publicly electing to be with someone below her station. Since Hugh Grant doesn’t fall below too many stations, this goes down more smoothly than it would if he were, say, Danny DeVito. But if Grant speaks through jaws aristocratically locked, his William Thacker is meant to embody a scruffy, downwardly mobile lifestyle; as a consequence of his integrity, he must share a flat with a cretinously vulgar couch potato called Spike (Rhys Ifans) and face a stream of dim customers who refuse to accept that his bookshop carries neither Dickens nor Grisham.

The script gives Grant a series of deadpan one-upmanships; what saves him from seeming like an utter snob is his habit of drawing attention to his own foolishness with a lovably self-deprecating stammer. When Anna Scott–with her sunglasses and strong “don’t touch” vibe–appears from amid his shelves to ask about a particular guide to Turkey, his recitation dribbles off hopelessly: “There’s also a very amusing incident with a kebab–among … many … amusing … incidents.” His look of panic may be translated as: “Oh, God, don’t I sound like a prat. Kiss me.” How can she resist those floppy locks, that sheepish grin?

Notting Hill spins such comic awkwardness into scenes of amazing charm. Summoned to the star’s suite for an impromptu date, Thacker finds himself in the middle of a press junket for her latest film and ends up posing as a journalist from Horse and Hound–a bit that at once lampoons the idiocy of celebrity interviews and forces the pair into a witty (and sexy) collusion. You also get a taste of the world from which Anna is fleeing when Alec Baldwin (unbilled, never funnier) shows up as her equally famous boyfriend, radiating narcissistic entitlement as he paws his celebrated squeeze and bids Thacker–forced this time into impersonating a room service waiter–to “adios those dirty dishes.” Scenes in the hero’s middle-class milieu skirt the sentimental: One friend (Gina McKee) is confined to a wheelchair to remind us that life is full of unhappy, as well as happy, accidents. But the movie recovers its high spirits whenever Emma Chambers appears as Thacker’s raucous, toothsome sister, who blurts out when she meets Anna that the two could be best friends.

The screenwriter, Curtis, began his career with the hilariously acrid BBC sitcom Black Adder before writing The Tall Guy (1989) and Four Weddings and a Funeral–a movie that irked me, possibly because Grant passed up the alluringly neurotic Kristin Scott Thomas for the vapidly bovine Andie MacDowell, possibly because its dizzy romantic badinage was interrupted for easy pathos involving a fatal heart attack and other real-world calamities. Curtis is ingenious in his slapstick farce and spoof mode, less assured when the emotional ante is upped. In Notting Hill, he hasn’t really thought through the character of Anna Scott. He must know how lucky he is that Julia Roberts arrived with so much astounding baggage.

A friend of mine once worked for a big movie star. When I asked if that star was “a nice guy,” he looked at me the way Stephen Hawking might if you asked whether a black hole was a “nice place.” “Uh … I suppose he’s nice,” said my friend. “He’s nice for a star. But when you’re a star and you go to restaurants, for instance, the waiters and owners fall all over you and send you drinks and food, and eventually you take that kind of attention for granted–and pretty soon you expect everything to revolve around you, and then you get upset when it doesn’t.

“Stars,” he concluded, “sometimes bestow their favors graciously, but they’re never ‘nice.’ Being a star precludes niceness.”

The best thing to be said about the Anna Scott of Roberts–an actress certainly capable of playing nice–is that she isn’t nice for a second. In fact, Roberts seems to welcome the opportunity to be as flat and guarded–as shut down–as possible while still giving an ingratiating performance. According to a profile in Vanity Fair, Roberts protested the script’s depiction of Anna’s distraught reaction to the release of a nude video: She argued that Anna would have learned not to let tabloid scandals get to her, because that way lies madness. The director reminded her–as one might a small child–that she was playing Anna, not Julia, but I side with the actress here. Whatever depth this character has is the upshot of Roberts’ attempt to communicate something about her own celebrity: to say that it has made her overdefended, and that it’s a constant battle to stay human in the face of so much attention.

Roberts began her career with a supernatural amount of charisma and sometimes wobbly technique: She was a skittish thoroughbred who needed to be handled (i.e., directed) with care. As she has become more self-sufficient, she has become more interesting. She wasn’t afraid to embrace the more heartlessly grasping side of her character in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), and her turn as a strange, Medusa-like seductress on a recent Law & Order was a tour de force. (I missed her in last year’s Stepmom–my raccoon had hepatitis.) She doesn’t need her Pretty Woman laughing shtick to hold your attention: She trusts her features, which are huge and nearly clownlike in their dimensions but which somehow coalesce into a heart-stopping symmetry. (Is it my imagination, though, or have those lips become even more pillowy? Leave them alone, Julia.) In Notting Hill, Roberts takes rejection with a frozen smile. Thus shielded, she has never looked so exposed. Her Anna is such a cauldron of unresolved impulses–rage, petulance, fear, deceptiveness, promiscuity–that it’s no wonder that the filmmakers had to tack on a corny, too-pat coda that spells out the couple’s happily-ever-afterhood. There’s no way we could otherwise picture a stable future. Roberts has left the movie’s cozy romantic fantasyland in a pile of jagged shards.

Notting Hill opens with an superfluous voice-over that sets the scene and makes certain that the audience is oriented. In contrast, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Besieged, from a script that the director wrote with Clare Peploe, has no narration and little dialogue: The intent is to keep the audience disoriented. It works, maybe to a fault. The film opens in Africa, where the husband of Shandurai (Thandie Newton) is seized by soldiers for insolence toward the country’s authoritarian ruler. When we encounter the young woman again, she has taken a job as the live-in domestic at a huge and crumbling Roman townhouse belonging to an English loner named Jason Kinsky (David Thewlis). All day, this gangling, bug-eyed oddball plays Scriabin on his grand piano while Shandurai dusts, vacuums, sews, irons, and launders. Then he sends a ring down the dumbwaiter to her basement room by way of proposing marriage.

I frankly don’t know what to make of Besieged, which attempts to forge a complicated relationship between its protagonists through “pure cinema,” and has won admiration for being allusive, elusive, elliptical, and other words that begin with “a” and “e” (enigmatic, ambivalent, evocative, etc.). In one sequence, Kinsky struggles to compose a piece while Shandurai vacuums. The camera swings from side to side with Shandurai and her vacuum cleaner, then from side to side with Kinsky and his chords as he becomes increasingly inspired. Is this satire, or does Bertolucci really mean to suggest a higher communion? (I fear the latter.) And are Kinsky’s rippling, Philip Glass-like progressions meant to suggest profundity or empty pretentiousness? (I fear the former.) The movie has virtuoso passages: Bertolucci is one of the few filmmakers whose technique is simultaneously sweeping and probing. His camera sweeps and then stops to probe–it fixes on an object and holds it up for scrutiny–and then goes back to sweeping. But what he means by what he shows is anybody’s guess. It’s possible that Besieged is meant to be vaguely allegorical: The African is seduced by the crumbling decadence of Europe while the European falls for the childlike simplicity of Africa. But I sure hope not.