Certain films, like beautiful, inviting houses, are places where many of us wish we could live. It’s rare that I feel this way when seeing a movie for the first time – it probably happens no more than a few times a year, sometimes less, and in fairness to the filmmakers of the world, this could be due as much to my occasionally feeble powers of concentration as it is to the film itself. But maybe not. When I think about the movies that have stayed with me over the past few decades, there seem only to be two or three each year that I want to step into.
Last night I saw David O. Russell’s new film, American Hustle, which was entertaining and sometimes showed flashes of his once-common campiness, but it's probably about 25 minutes too long and was, like Henry James' description of the novel, kind of a loose, baggy monster. While watching the trailers that preceded it, a very different film came to mind, Bright Star, Jane Campion’s 2009 John Keats biopic. Unlike American Hustle, it is one of those rare films that I wished I could find a secret portal into because the characters and their lives and the countryside where they take their walks and fall in love are so touching and vivid and immediate. That’s the sorcery of great art: you’re sitting immobile before a screen or a painting or a photograph, but your brain and body are as alert and electrified as they would be if you were standing in the doorway of an unfamiliar room, all of your closest friends and family suddenly leaping at you from behind the drapes and sofa to yell “Surprise!”
Another Jane Campion film, not so well reviewed as Bright Star (and very different thematically and topically) that made a lasting impression is Holy Smoke, which stars Harvey Keitel and Kate Winslet. Most of Campion’s films are sharp, offbeat, and sexy, and Holy Smoke might be her sexiest. Bright Star is more restrained but still sensual, longing more than lust the underlying emotion. There’s such restraint in Bright Star, such a complex evocation of friendship and jealousy and repressed desire. Also, breathtakingly so, sympathy and love (the little girl who tells the ailing Keats that she loves him near the film’s end – I’d have trouble finding a more poignant scene in any film.) Abbie Cornish, a talented Australian beauty better known for her role in the mediocre Limitless, is perfect as Keats’ love interest and literary sparring partner. Ben Whishaw, who played the creepy killer in Perfume, is likewise perfect as Keats. His sensitivity and grace, the effacement, it seems, of the person he is when not being filmed, is seamless. Egoless? Maybe that’s more apt. Egolessness is probably the state, a hard one to achieve for sure, that's vital for success as an actor.
We leave the theater or turn off the computer or television after seeing something as good as Bright Star and are not the same collection of doubts, desires, memories, unpaid bills, and fears that we were when we began watching it. We are less fearful probably, less doubtful, but more full of desire. I know that’s hardly a novel idea, but the experience of encountering something fresh and unfamiliar rewards and sustains us (even through the reading of blog posts like this one!) because a brilliant movie and the emotional and intellectual responses it produces in us feel novel. Great films, a chance to commingle for a couple of hours with a mind bigger than our own: this is a state of beauty and grace, one that with a second viewing, can often be experienced again because a great film will not fade or founder – often the contrary – upon renewed scrutiny.