The Inner Gesture
Rachel Weisz supposedly said to director Terence Davies on The Deep Blue Sea (quoted in a Sight and Sound interview with the director) that he shouldn't be afraid to make her look 'ugly', as if she wanted to play the role of a besotted woman with the idea that she might not be so stunning in the eyes of the man whom she loves so much, but who loves her less. But where other directors like Ingmar Bergman and Robert Rossen have done exactly that, with Ingrid Thulin's character in the brilliant Winter Light, dowdy within her downtrodden affections, and Piper Laurie likewise in The Hustler, Weisz achieves instead a luminescent vulnerability. In the scene early in the film where her lover Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) and a friend imitate various war characters, Weisz's Hester sits there with a look of transparent desire somewhere between lust and admiration. It doesn't matter what Hiddleston happens to be doing; the point is that he is existing and that she exists in her love for him. Through her gaze, voice and her breathing Weisz wonderfully captures the feelings of what it means to be overcome by love.
Weisz has played passionate before, most notably in films like I Want You and The Fountain, playing in the former a woman whose teenage love affair some years before led to her father's death, and in the latter a figure loved through time in a Darren Aronofsky film that covers a thousand years in history. She has also played passionate both emotionally and journalistically in The Constant Gardener, the film for which she won numerous awards, including a best supporting actress Oscar. She is the character who gets the story moving, with her death investigated by her grieving husband as the film becomes an impossible romance between the living and the dead: her husband tries to discover the truth about her demise, and the rumours that surrounded the life of this young woman determined to fight for the rights of the poor.
But Weisz has also been able to manipulate the affections of another, most conspicuously in The Shape of Things, where she takes an ordinary looking man and shapes him into a new figure. He thinks it is all about love; for her, it transpires, it is all about a research project. There is cruelty in I Want You as well of course: the film concludes with Weisz's character killing the very young man she still loves, a young man who took responsibility for her father's death years earlier. She does so in a moment of hysterical overreaction that probably resembles the earlier death we do not see: the father's.
Now though Weisz, as Davies notes, is not a woman he could easily have made ugly, she has a face, voice and demeanour well-capable of expressing harshness, evident in moments in one her earliest films Stealing Beauty, through to The Shape of Things. Davies in The Deep Blue Sea hasn't ignored this aspect, and gives her various scenes where her love for Freddie contains within it cruelty towards others. The moment where she is short with her husband's mother would be one example that few will dispute is thoroughly deserved as the woman makes pointed remarks in Hester's direction that the young woman finally responds to in kind. It as though the affair with Freddie that she has embarked upon (and that her husband will find out about during this visit to the mother-in-law), has given her an attitude of insouciance, and it might be the easiest scene in the film because she offers it to a woman with no redeeming qualities. Yet when Hester is cruel to her husband, this is something else. It is the cruelty that doesn't aggrandize the self but impoverishes it. The mother-in-law is all of a smug piece, and there is a long tradition in cinema of the mother-in-law who needs to get told what's what: evident for example when Alan Bates takes on Thora Hird's character in A Kind of Loving. Whatever arrogance Weisz or Bates's characters show is justifiable in the context of the monster they are confronting.
But husband William is not such a figure; he is a man very much in love with his younger wife, and who isn't only losing her, but has also, as he overhears her talking on the phone to her lover, been betrayed. If Weisz can feel proud of herself taking on the mother-in-law, she can surely feel, finally, nothing but shame in cheating on her husband behind his back. One offers this not as a moral judgement on Hester especially; more to differentiate between the justifiably aggrandizing and the problematically self-liberating. It seems the mother-in-law's disdain for Hester demands that when empowered Hester should fight back, but William's attitude towards her is not the same as his mother's, and so any feeling of liberation must inevitably be countered by a hint of self-contempt.
In an interview with her friend Emma Forrest in Index, Forrest says, the "first time I saw Rachel Weisz was on a street in Edinburgh during the theater festival. A student at Cambridge University, she was wearing dungarees and handing out leaflets for her play. I hid behind a lamppost and stared because I thought she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen." But if another sees her as beautiful in Edinburgh, she herself can feel unattractive elsewhere. Talking of Hollywood, Weisz says, in the same interview, "My friend was saying that no one flirts there. Like at the traffic light when you're stopped. People are very focused on their own thing. I don't mean just sexual flirting, but verbal flirting. In L.A., unless you've just won an Oscar or you're Mr. Studio Head, no one talks to you. Even at parties. I was at this big Hollywood party; no one looked. Everyone is blinkered and they just kind of scan the room for anyone important. L.A. makes you feel ugly."
However, partly what makes Weisz so fascinating is that she is a beautiful woman containing unattractive characteristics. Many beautiful women do not possess this dimension of characteristic ugliness within beauty, almost as if the symmetrical perfection of their face refuses the possibility of emotional range. Whether it is Catherine Deneuve or Michelle Pfeiffer, Claudia Cardinale or Sophie Laren, Grace Kelly or Emmanuelle Beart, these are all women probably more beautiful than Weisz but they also lack a certain physiognomic cruelty and, at the same time, vulnerability, Weisz's face expresses well.
Vulnerability and cruelty would seem to be antithetical expressions, but they are both expressive states, and perhaps deeply expressive. The shallowly expressive might include haughtiness, flirtatiousness and amusedness, all expressions Weisz can offer, but if she is interesting as an actress it is for the cruelty and vulnerability in a face that is beautiful without being perfect: as if in the mild imperfections reside the capacity for the deep feelings a more mask-like face could hide. In one scene in I Want You, her character is cutting someone's hair when she accidentally cuts her client's ear and the woman starts screaming that she is being cut as if it weren't quite an accident. Weisz has accidentally cut the woman's ear because she had been disturbed by the reappearance of her ex-lover, but there is also something in Weisz's face that indicates such harshness is possible, and it goes beyond the character she plays, who is obviously capable of violence. It lies in the face one has and the range it can offer. Sometimes with actors this physiognomic range isn't immediately available, and it is only later in their careers when their face has gained lines that can indicate fret and worry that the demanding emotions can easily be accessed. But Weisz's face has always had this capacity: I Want You was made fourteen years before The Deep Blue Sea.
Yet despite this physiognomic dimension, Weisz has been in few demanding films in any sense of the term. From The Mummy to Constance, from Beautiful Creatures to Stealing Beauty, the demands have been few and the expressive range narrow. Despite working in the latter film with a director capable of extracting one of Marlon Brando's greatest performances in Last Tango in Paris, here her supporting role functions as light relief despite potential emotional torment. As she plays the daughter of an Irish couple who emigrated to Tuscany, her character is sidelined as the focus is on Liv Tyler, a burgeoning beauty whose mother, a friend of the couple's, died long before and who never knew her father. Meanwhile Weisz's character is in love with a Hollywood accountant, who's already married. Her emotional chaos is light comedy, and Bertolucci plays up the strident voice, the jealous moods and the sexual hi-jinks as the performance isn't so much thankless as characterless. She remains so peripheral to the proceedings that when the lover leaves and her mother feels it is for the best after the pain he has caused her, we may wonder whether we ought to have seen more of that pain.
Constantine is obviously not a better film than Bertolucci's, but the role at least gives Weisz possibilities that Stealing Beauty denies her. It is often said, however apocryphally, that actors fight for close-ups, but one of the problems with Weisz's role in Stealing Beauty is that she seems to get so few, where at least in this possession thriller she can lay claim to her expressive range no matter the limitations of the genre piece. For instance in one scene where Keanu Reeves' central character asks her to get into the bath for the purposes of connecting again with her dead sister, Weisz asks if she should get undressed or keep her clothes on. In this moment there are flickers of feeling that the two-shot, semi-profiled close-up offers as she stands desirously and vulnerably next to Reeves.
A wit might say anybody acting literally next to Keanu Reeves is going to look emotionally expressive, but that isn't our point. It is more that in a very mediocre genre horror piece like Constantine, the emotional range, from Weisz's point of view, is much greater than it might be in a film by an acknowledged auteur, no matter if few would argue that Stealing Beauty is one of Bertolucci's better films. In this instance we are talking more of quantity than quality: that a film like Constantine offers far more close ups where Weisz's physiognomic expressiveness can be revealed. A minute before this scene where she gets into the bath, Weisz talks to Reeves about her dead sister, and a tear falls from her eye. While such a moment is indicative of the shallow nature of much Hollywood genre characterization as someone moves from weepy to low-key lustful in a matter of seconds, it can still be surprisingly rangy for the actor. It may often seem like bad faith when an actor talks about their role in a manner that seems completely at odds with the commercial piece one has just watched, but sometimes the performance gets so manipulated in the editing suite that the acting becomes very different from the emotions the actor believed they were expressing. A mainstream filmmaker like Anthony Minghella expresses it quite well when saying, in Minghella on Minghella, "the camera has nothing neutral about it whatsoever. Where you put somebody in the frame is as critical as what they're doing." At least Weisz is put into the centre of the frame at frequent moments in Constantine no matter the stupidity that the performance serves. Clearly Bertolucci's film is a more sophisticated piece, but there are still far more opportunities for Weisz to show demanding emotions in Constantine than in Stealing Beauty. Weisz at least gets to express her emotions even if the final product robs them of any texture and depth as the film becomes a special effects possession movie.
It could be argued that it all depends on how big the role happens to be. Constantine is a far bigger part than the one in Stealing Beauty as she takes a supporting role to Reeves that borders on a second lead. But one thinks the issue resides not so much in screen time and characterisation; more on how somebody is cast, and the use of the plasticity of the actor in relation to that casting. Constantine is a non-film but it isn't entirely a non-role, while The Lovely Bones has the potential to be an interesting film (Lynne Ramsay was lined up to adapt Alice Sebold's novel), but there is little of interest in Weisz's performance as the mother who loses her teenage daughter to a local murderer. Directed by Peter Jackson, her performance seems not to be emanating from herself but from the mise-en-scene, without Weisz being a mise-en-scene actor. What do we mean by this? There are great mise-en-scene actors from Johnny Depp to Errol Flynn, from Gene Kelly to Daniel Day Lewis, from Penelope Cruz to Maggie Cheung. These are all actors either through their bodily expressiveness, or through their capacity to bring out the colourfulness of the mise-en-scene in their own elegant (Cheung in Hero and In The Mood for Love) or absurd wardrobe (Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Edward Scissorhands). In The Lovely Bones Weisz dowdily fails to impose herself at all upon the film, if we assume that imposing often consists of exuberant body movement or clothing which draws attention to the presence within the frame even when close-ups are rarely forthcoming. (A rare exception for Weisz might be the second half of Envy, where she gets to play sultry and lustful.) Even if Depp hadn't been the lead in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory his presence would have been imposing, just as Cruz's happens to be in a supporting role in Allen's Vicky Cristina, Barcelona. In The Lovely Bones it is Susan Sarandon as the grandmother and not Weisz as the mother who imposes herself, and it is the sort of film where it would be easily to forget that Weisz had been in it at all. She is forgettable because she finds no means in which to be physically imposing. There is a scene in the movie where she discusses with her daughter how much of the photographic film the daughter has shot will be processed, and it is a by-numbers moment where the parent seems to limiting the child's creativity. If something in Weisz's tone, in her dress sense, in her body language had made the moment singular, she might have become memorable, but it as though all the effort went into mastering an American accent, and playing dutifully dull.
The Shape of Things is perhaps alongside I Want You and The Deep Blue Sea her major performance, if we think that what makes Weisz interesting is her physiognomic range. As she plays a woman who turns Paul Rudd's character into a human sculpture, so Evelyn expresses a wide range of feelings, no matter if she admits at the end they were all purely for the purposes of manipulation. Here Evelyn meets gallery security guard Adam after he tries to dissuade her from getting too close to a sculpture, and the pair start dating. Over the course of four months we notice his clothes change, his hairstyle and even his nose after Evelyn persuades him to have a nose job, and drop his friends. All of this is achieved not through force but through persuasion, and vital to Evelyn's persuasive manner is the physiognomic range Weisz offers in a film that she also produced. This is especially effective late in the film where Evelyn offers her ultimatum. When Adam and Evelyn discuss the kiss he shared with a friend's girlfriend, Evelyn talks about the kiss she gave someone as payback, before adding that she gave him a blowjob as well - only kidding she says. As she shifts from hurt to righteous to playful in a matter of seconds, so Weisz has a face that can accommodate the range. Paul Rudd's purpose is to play the role with a minimum of facial gestures as he offers up a well-meaning, likeable figure with a weak personality. It is a performance with no 'internal' meaning, as he bounces off the manipulations of Weisz, the bullying of his friend, and the affections of the friend's girlfriend (played by the dependably loveable Gretchen Mol). Weisz, though, is a figure that is all internal meaning as she manipulates and schemes her way into a decent man's affections. One of the film's ironies is that it might be Rudd's character that gets the transformation, but it is Weisz who gets to play the facially transformative character as she creates the role out of a series of hidden motives. Rudd reacts to the external responses of others and has a face perfect for such a role: a blankly handsome visage open to external prompts. Weisz has a face good on inner motivation. As she says that she will stay with him if he drops his friends, so she offers it with the tone of an ultimatum, but with the facial gestures of the beseeching. Rudd's face is all reaction; Weisz's all interior scheming, as we'll find out at the film's conclusion. It makes sense when earlier in the scene Evelyn, Adam and Jenny (Mol) are in conversation and Evelyn is alone in her shots, while Jenny and Adam are together in the counter shot. Evelyn might be Adam's girlfriend, but it is at this moment clear that Adam and Jenny have more in common. They have sensitively reactive faces; Evelyn a sensitively strategic one. The range of her gestures do not come from the range offered by others, but from a range of thoughts and feelings to which others are not privy.
Yet we might wonder how this inner gesture differs from film to film, since, for example, her characters in I Want You, The Shape of Things and The Deep Blue Sea are hardly similar, despite none being readily sympathetic. All three characters in the films do have in common however a feeling of emotional grievance, a resentment towards something or somebody. In I Want You it is the father whom she kills in the past, in The Deep Blue Seait is the stultifying marriage she's been caught in, and in The Shape of Things it seems vaguely to concern other men, jocks who perhaps have finished with her in the past. Though we of course have to take everything Evelyn says with caution, since she admits that she has consistently lied to Adam, nevertheless her very project hints at a hurt she wanted to explore by turning Adam from an plain, dull figure to a charming and physically attractive one, and use the former to get revenge on the latter. This isn't to try and read the film and discover Evelyn's motives; more to suggest why certain facial gestures make sense in relation to the characters she plays. Even in a film like the more impersonally oriented The Whistleblower, there is a hint of motivational resentment. Here Weisz's character wants to expose a trafficking ring in Bosnia, and she says to one girl that she wants to save them since she lost her own daughter: her husband won the custody battle over her child. Again a resentful feeling towards the past justifies varied facial reactions in the present.
Yet, overall, any number of actors could have played her character in The Whistleblower, as we feel also with numerous Weisz roles: from Stealing Beauty to The Lovely Bones, from About a Boy to Page Eight, from Sunshine to Chain Reaction. These are unmemorable roles in the way she creates in her major films the memorable, though even in a minor role the memorable can manifest itself if the director allows for the transformative: if not in the face, then at least in the body. In Barry Levinson's Envy, Weisz moves from a dully attired and irritated wife to sexually alluring spouse when her husband gets to share in the wealth their neighbours have made: it is a rare moment of Weisz proving a mise-en-scene actress. It is one of those transformations that Hollywood loves (from Bette Davis in Now Voyager to Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns), and that The Shape of Things plays with, but it is embedded in a subordinate role that has no narrative function. It is a great Weisz role but not much of a character, yet at least she escapes from the invisible secondary characterisation in films like Stealing Beauty andThe Lovely Bones, where there is no scene that indicates her capacity for intrigue and passion. Here, after the resentfulness of feeling her husband a failure when he fails to go along with his neighbour's get rich quick scheme - making dog poo disappear - she can't get enough of the rich lifestyle when the neighbour insists Weisz and her husband become equal partners in the company. Half the new found wealth we sense goes into Weisz's sexy attire.
Yet we are still left it seems with three films, despite the numerous awards for The Constant Gardener, three films where Weisz brings something interesting to the work and gives variation to resentment through the variety of facial gesture. If in I Want You she is a woman with a past, in The Shape of Things someone looking towards her future, and in The Deep Blue Sea a wife who has been emotionally and sexually limited in her relationship with her husband, in all of them she shows not so much great emotional range as the subtlety of facial nuance. Whether it is how she simultaneously feels tender and yet vaguely disgusted by her husband in The Deep Blue Sea, capable of the gestures of love without feeling them in The Shape of Things, or desiring but wary of her ex in I Want You, Weisz can show ambivalence of feeling in a face that is beautiful but not unequivocally so.
© Tony McKibbin