The list of movies that I want to see during this glorious holiday (Oscar) season is long. Yet somehow Shopgirl rose to the top of the list. Perhaps I was intrigued by the age-old dynamic of the romantic triangle: undiscovered beauty, rich man, and sweet loser. Maybe I simply wanted to see what screenwriter and star Steve Martin has been up to lately. Or per chance, I wanted to experience a heartwarming story of love lost and found. Whatever the reason, I chose to see Shopgirl, and now I’m not really sure what to make of it.
A rather quirky, quiet, and small film, Martin’s script focuses upon Mirabelle Butterfield (would love to hear his thoughts on how he choose her name). She sells gloves at Saks Fifth Avenue in L.A. and works on her art at night. Climbing fifty-two steps to her apartment each day, Mirabelle traverses an elaborate series of up and down stairwells that symbolize her life: moving with the usual ebb and flow and always ending up in the same place. Her life is quiet, lonely, and stalled.
But what makes Mirabelle (Claire Danes) the focus of our story is that she continues to “search for a connection.” This is a film about a woman who is incomplete without a man. Director Anand Tucker reinforces this fact by placing his heroine in almost complete isolation. The one woman to approach her is a vicious fake blonde makeup saleswoman: otherwise, Mirabelle operates in a woman-free zone; no girlfriends, no gossip partners, nothing. Mirabelle’s isolation has a point, though, for she is not like other women who scheme and manipulate to get a man.
Instead, Mirabelle is a woman willing to take what she can get. Meeting Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) at the laundromat, she enjoys his quirky and sincere pick-up routine. Their first date, however, is a disaster. Though not a jerk, Jeremy is clueless. Despite this apparent lack of chemistry, Mirabelle decides to sleep with him after a radio talk show makes her feel badly for being single.
The sex in the film tends to be depicted as awkward and painfully funny. Having accidentally left his condom at home, Jeremy suggests he and Mirabelle use saran wrap. He not kidding (see “clueless” above). Like most first sexual encounters, the sex is rather mechanical and brief. Similarly, Mirabelle’s first date with Ray Porter(Steve Martin) is equally uncomfortable, with gaps in the conversation and silly attempts to initiate dialogue.
The film’s strength is this very realism. Martin may romanticize Mirabelle’s journey in his overly poetic narration, but within the scenes themselves, his script allows the awkwardness of silence to speak more than the characters’ words. The camera follows Mirabelle closely, carefully detailing each mundane and routine event in her life. Though conceptually the film follows the Cinderella formula: wealthy man discovers hidden beauty of lowly girl and elevates her to a higher status, it continually undermines this very mythology.
For much of their romance, Mirabelle and Ray are planning for a trip to New York: the ball, if you will. But just weeks before the trip, a betrayal interferes. Though Mirabelle eventually attends the ball, its symbolic significance effectively foreshadows the end of their relationship rather than the apex.
So many cinematic love stories present characters overcoming impossible situations and expressing their affection in poetry rivaled only by Shakespeare. These films are almost impossible to relate to for most mortals, but their intent isn’t verisimilitude but rather fantasy. Shopgirl attemps to bridge the gap between the two, with relative success.
Martin’s narration provides a thematic arc for the film that it simply doesn’t need. He doesn’t share information otherwise unknowable, nor does the narration forward the story. The tone shifts dramatically each time Martin’s voice intercedes, breaking away from the quiet honesty of Mirabelle’s everyday life for a narration that attempts to add a universal grandeur to her journey.
Similarly, the music within the film attempts to impose a certain elegance and dramatic edge to the story. With the sweeping orchestrations that weigh down many a Hollywood film, the music feels decidedly overdone. Continually returning to a monotonous theme of rising and falling scales, the tune conveys a feeling of anxiety. Yet nothing that Mirabelle experiences throughout the film is life threatening or extraordinary. Rather, she falls in love with an unattainable man. Her story is touching, to be sure, but the music attempts a level of pathos that the story does not demand or deserve.
While thinking about how this film made me feel, I began to see the movie as deeply depressing. This is not your typical love story, with a couple discovering an innate connection that distinguishes their love from any other. Rather, Mirabelle falls into her ultimate relationship. These are the two men who happen to present themselves, and so between them she must choose. For a moment, I thought the film might climax with Mirabelle choosing herself, but instead, the film celebrates her discovery of a love reciprocated.
Can’t really argue with that, but somehow the union doesn’t ring true. Shopgirl doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be or what story it wants to tell. For most of the film, Jeremy and Mirabelle aren’t even in the same state. Moreover, Jeremy’s makeover, amusingly sponsored by a rock band and self-help tapes, allows a union that is otherwise impossible. Those of us who try to be with a person hoping for a complete overhaul of their look and personality usually find ourselves quite disappointed. So much for the film’s realism. Jeremy is practically a deus ex machina. Unable to leave Mirabelle alone, Tucker overreaches.
Yet the quiet honesty of the film's depiction of its heroine Mirabelle, so touchingly played by Claire Danes, cannot help but affect an audience. It certainly did me.