Saturday, April 02, 2005


Alternative Goddesses

Different actresses have different impacts on the audience. Some actresses are as beautiful and glamorous as we could only wish we could be. The characters these actresses play are our fantasy lives and they do the things that we, the ordinary people, rarely do in real life. However, there are other actresses who specialize in portraying our real lives. Their personalities on screen are not the ones of goddesses, but humans. When we watch them, we feel as if we watch ourselves. These actresses have the power to transform the screen into a magic mirror, the mirror that can only tell the truth and nothing but the truth. This mirror does not hide what we want to hide, and will not let us forget what we want to forget. These actresses aren’t satisfied with playing only likeable characters, but excel in playing complicated, annoying, or gray characters. While the first group of actresses impress us with their generous smiles, expression of happiness, and optimistic attitude towards life and the world, the second group impress us with their tears, reluctant smiles, and expression of anger, anxiety, disgust and despair. This second group of actresses, who have the faces that can show real anguish, pain, and suffering, are very essential to some kinds of cinema, and without them the world of cinema would be just a little more than a wasteland. Imagine Shirley Valentine (Lewis Gilbert, 1989) without Pauline Collins, Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996) without Emily Watson, Secrets and Lies (Mike Leigh, 1995) without Brenda Blethyn, or Swedish cinema without Liv Ullmann, and you will get the picture. To see the difference between these two groups is to see Ingrid Bergman in Hollywood films and see her again in Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman, 1978). For some audience, it is much easier to relate to the characters that the second group play. Watching their characters, we feel as if our lives have been confirmed by being projected onto the screen, as if the world acknowledge that we really exist. Watching them, we come to understand our feelings, emotions, ourselves, and people around us, and we feel hopeful that at least there might be someone somewhere in the world who can also understand us.

If you feel more related to the second group of actresses, or if you are one of those who prefer Diane Ladd to Diane Lane, Brigitte Mira to Brigitte Bardot, or Giulietta Masina as a prostitute in Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1956) to Julia Roberts as a prostitute in Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990), maybe you should check out films by the following actresses. These are actresses that I truly worship. They are goddesses to me, because each of them have their own magic powers: some of them have the power of giving real life, flesh and blood, heart and soul to their characters via their realistic acting, and some of them have the power of revealing to us the unpleasant corners in our minds and our society via their stylistic acting.

Carmen Maura

If not for Carmen Maura and Pedro Almodovar, some teenagers during the 1980s would have never known, nor fallen in love with, the Spanish cinema. Passionate, wild, funny, and outrageous. The adjectives used to describe Carmen Maura can also be used to describe most Spanish films. Maura is the actress who can do the unexpected, who can do anything beyond our wildest dreams. Who can ever forget her mischievous smiles, her hairstyle in the final scene of Pepi, Luci, Bom (Pedro Almodovar, 1980), what she did in the opening scene of What Have I Done to Deserve This? (Pedro Almodovar, 1984), or how she emerges from a theatre in the opening scene of Law of Desire (Pedro Almodovar, 1987)? Though she plays only a small part in Matador (Pedro Almodovar, 1986), her scenes and her dialogue with Antonio Banderas in this film are the ones that last the longest in my memory, and make me laugh every time I think of them. Carmen Maura represents the ‘naughty girl’ inside us all. She might not be as outrageous as Divine, nor as cool as Victoria Abril, but that’s why we can easily relate to her characters, and that’s why no other actresses can replace her. When she is in Almodovar’s films, she shows her potential as one of the best comediennes in the world. Unfortunately, when Almodovar and Maura become more mature, or when they don’t work together, one can easily notice that the same kind of charm has gone. Almodovar’s films become less and less funny, and though Maura’s roles in Elles (Luis Galvao Teles, 1997) and Le Bonheur est dans le pre (Etienne Chatiliez, 1995) are still funny, these later roles are forgettable. Maybe it is because her later roles are too sober, because she doesn’t want to be typecast, or because the directors cannot bring out the best in her. Anyway, though time has passed since she reached her peak in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Pedro Almodovar, 1988), I still think of her every time I hear the word ‘Spanish film’.

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi

No one can doubt about the talent of Valeria Bruni Tedeschi after seeing Oublie-moi (Noemie Lvovsky, 1995), one of her best works. She excels in playing ‘a woman on a verge of a nervous breakdown’, because she is so powerful, intense, and explosive. She is so believable in this role that some might question her mental health outside the camera. The power of her acting is so overwhelming that even though she is just a supporting character in an ensemble Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (Patrice Chereau, 1998), a poster of this film features only her, and it chooses to feature her in the most explosive moment—when she cannot repress her emotions any more. She is so special in There’s Nothing Special About Normal People (Laurence Ferreira Barbosa, 1993) in which she plays a mad woman who is still likeable. But her talent shines the brightest in Oublie-moi, in which she plays a mad woman who is not likeable at all. Her character in this film is so annoying, so stubborn, so silly, so terrible that very few people would wish to be near her in real life. But thanks to her talent and the directing of Noemie Lvovsky, some audience can sympathize with this ultimately annoying character, and thus forgive her because we understand that this character is just a human being.

A case like this--when the main character is ultimately annoying and boring if they exist in reality, yet captivating and never boring when presented on screen---is hard to find. The only other actress whom I think is as successful as Bruni Tedeschi in this case is Marie Riviere as a ‘difficult’ woman in Le Rayon Vert (Eric Rohmer, 1986). They both play the kinds of women who suffer because of themselves. However, after comparing these two roles, you will find that the role of Bruni Tedeschi is much more negative and hopeless. I think Marie Riviere and Bruni Tedeschi are very courageous, because they knew they risked being hated by some audience when they played these roles.

Films like Oublie-moi and Le Rayon Vert make one feel as if the films are custom-made for their specific leading actresses, since the success or failure of the films seems to rest entirely on the actresses’ talents. Just look at the car accident scene in Oublie-moi; the audience never have a chance to ‘see’ the accident, because the camera only focuses on the expression on Bruni Tedeschi’s face. Oublie-moi seems to have no standard plot or conventional storyline, because the main interest of the film is only the emotions of Bruni Tedeschi’s character. It is no exaggeration to say that films like these exist only because actresses like Bruni-Tedeschi exist.

Having said all that, I must add that Bruni Tedeschi is not only capable of playing a mad woman. She can also be alluring in Nenette et Boni (Claire Denis, 1996) or be calm and thoughtful in Au coeur du mensonge, in which she plays a detective and has the daunting task of being in the same scenes with Sandrine Bonnaire, an actress who can overpower anyone easily. While female detectives in other films are cocky and stereotyped, Bruni Tedeschi can combine perfectly authoritativeness, wit and femininity into her role, thus makes this detective truly stand apart as an individual. Plus, I think her voice is unique and is a part of her charms.

Sandrine Kiberlain

She is another actress who excels in playing a stubborn and headstrong woman, but though she is as intense and powerful as Bruni Tedeschi, her characters are not explosive, and choose to express their frustration, anger, and pain in a much subtler way. Kiberlain is an actress who can look physically and emotionally fragile in one minute, and look tough and strong in the next minute. It is forgivable if one sees There’s Nothing Special About Normal People and forgets that she has a role in this film. But it is a crime if one sees Kiberlain in Laetitia Masson’s films and can afford to ever forget her. Kiberlain’s role in A Vendre (Laetitia Masson, 1998) as a woman who keeps on running is one of the most interesting roles in cinema. Kiberlain can make us believe her roles, believe that people like this really exist, though some of us never quite understand her characters nor the logic and reasons behind her characters’ actions. Through her roles, she lets us get in touch with the kind of people who actually exist everywhere, but rarely get exposed in Hollywood films. These are real people who are naturally complicated, and live to defy the Hollywood rule that humans and humans’ actions can be explained and understood. Just compare her role, talent, and power in A Vendre with those of Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride (Garry Marshall, 1999), and you can understand perfectly how essential Kiberlain is to the world of cinema. She is the perfect representation of some kind of people who are always underrepresented in films.

Another interesting thing about Kiberlain is that though she looks sincere and simple, there is nothing simple beneath the surface. Her characters usually have a troubled soul and a mind as deep as the ocean. Though she excels in playing intense women, she has proved that she can also be so ‘relaxed’ in La Fausse suivante (Benoit Jacquot, 2000), in which she plays a scheming girl involved in intricate love relationships. Did Jacquot cast a wrong actress to play in a romantic comedy? No, because though La Fausse suivante can be considered a romantic comedy, it has a very cruel side. Only actresses with such enormous talents as Kiberlain and Isabelle Huppert can play a complicated cruel/romantic part and still make it look as if it was so easy.

There’s one film that really makes use of the simple look of Kiberlain. It is L’Appartement (Gilles Mimouni, 1996), and her personality is effectively used to contrast with the personalities of Monica Bellucci and Romane Bohringer. I guess some audience might be impressed with the sexiness of Bellucci and Bohringer, but it is Kiberlain’s look that calls the attention of and gains sympathy from other audience, the kind of audience who like to look at someone they can relate to.

Tilda Swinton

Tilda Swinton is the real queen, and no other actresses can look as majestic as her. One feels as if she has an invisible aura around her, feels as if she is always superior and has the right to look down on other people. Even though she appears in the disappointing The Beach (Danny Boyle, 2000), she is still the queen of the island, and is the best thing in that movie. Then, how is she different from Judi Dench who is also queen-like? In my opinion, Dench’s image is a kind of woman who always has something good or kind hidden beneath the surface, while Swinton’s image is a kind of woman who makes you doubt whether she is virtuous or heartless.

Swinton is the real gay icon, not only because of her long collaboration with the late Derek Jarman, but also because of her participation in Female Perversions (Susan Streitfeld, 1996), Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992), and Love is the Devil (John Maybury, 1998). She is very beautiful, and looks like she has just stepped out of an old painting. But one feels as if she has something androgynous about her. Maybe it is partly because she never looks voluptuous, vulnerable, nor dim witted, as some male audience might prefer actresses to be.

One feels as if Swinton is the embodiment of art and can be presented as a kind of art. And Swinton really did it when she went to sleep in a gallery and let people observe her in her sleep. Can you think of other actresses who can be a better living work of art than her? Her participation in Orbital’s music video doesn’t mean she lowers herself to the pop culture, but rather means she helped uplifing the music industry and bring it much closer to the avant garde cinema. Anyone who loves Orbital’s music knows how perfectly the haunting rhythm of Orbital matches her ethereal presence.

Though one may say she was very fortunate to having participated in Jarman’s films, because she didn’t have to compete with other actresses in the same films, her roles in Jarman’s, though very dignified, are not the central characters. Yet, anyone who has ever had a doubt about her real talent just has to see Female Perversions and their doubts will be cleared. This film presents her with a real challenge because it contrasts with her works in Jarman’s in many ways: here she is the central character who is really complex and lives in the present, and here she has to compete with other talented actresses in the same film. The result: Swinton is the real winner of the film, and the scene in which she expresses her anger with a lipstick is unforgettable. Of all the other actresses in this film, only Frances Fisher emerges intact from the ferocious power of Swinton.

Not only her presence on screen that is admirable, just read her interviews and you will also admire her thoughts. She once said in Vogue, “I honestly don’t see the point of doing anything if you know how it’s going to turn out.” Well, how many actresses are willing to take risks like her? She also said in an interview by Greg King for Female Perversions that she found something exhilarating about working with people who haven’t learned to compromise yet.

For those of you who are familiar with her works in Jarman’s, please read the article “Letter to an angel”, (,12084,775676,00.html ) written by Swinton in the Guardian website, and you would surely admire her more. For those of you who don’t know her, just watch Edward II (Derek Jarman, 1991), for which she won the Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival as Queen Isabella, and compare her role with the role of Sophie Marceau in Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995), and you will undestand how Swinton is different from other actresses. Swinton’s Isabella can be a good example for her other roles. Her roles are not about women who need to be loved, but about women who are awe-inspiring and need to be feared. Her Isabella is not a woman for men to die for, but a woman who causes deaths for men. One can only agree with Derek Jarman when he said, “Of all the people I’ve worked with, Tilda is the one who transforms the screen.”

Irm Hermann

There’s something about Irm Hermann which makes her unforgettable. Though she played only small parts in the later works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, her appearance is always striking. And there is something comedic about her. It is as if she can turn any scene into a comedy just by her appearance. There can be no two actresses’ personalities as different as those of Tilda Swinton and Irm Hermann.While Swinton seems to be perpetually queen-like and carries seriousness with her, Hermann is just the opposite. It’s very difficult to compare Hermann to other actresses in order to tell anyone unfamiliar with her to get the picture of her particular appeal. There’s only one actress I can think of who might have the same kind of appeal, though their looks are very different. It’s Rossy de Palma. And it is because de Palma has a face so unique, has a comedic quality within her, and can manage to be unforgettable though she has only the supporting roles in Kika (Pedro Almodovar, 1993), in which she plays the sister of a rapist, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (Pedro Almodovar, 1989), in which she did some horrible thing to Antonio Banderas, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, in which she loses her virginity by a dream.

Though Hermann is the leading lady in Katzelmacher (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1969), in which she is believable as a rich, snobbish, and arrogant woman, and has an important role in The Merchant of Four Seasons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972), the film which best captures her appeal is The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972), in which she plays an assistant to Margit Carstensen. The image of her in this film is indelible: an image of a woman who is in total submission as if she is emotionally masochist. Hermann rarely utters a word in this film, but her presence on the screen is so strong that she successfully steals the scene from Carstensen and Hanna Schygulla. And if you think her role as Marlene in this film can be plainly described as ‘a submissive woman’, just wait until the ending of the film.

Why do I write about Irm Hermann, instead of Schygulla or Carstensen, who are as talented as Hermann and have much more important roles in Fassbinder’s works? It is because I can relate to Hermann, and I like her appeal which is relatively down-to-earth compared to Schygulla and Carstensen. Schygulla’s roles are too beautiful, glamorous, and cold-hearted to relate to, while Carstensen’s roles are too strong and cruel. An actress who has a glamorous or strong personality is easier to be found than an actress who has a unique personality as Hermann. An actress with a particular appeal like Irm Hermann or Brigitte Mira seems to be found only in the New German Cinema.

While you can say Hermann owed a lot to Fassbinder for giving her the kinds of roles she could have never found anywhere else, anyone who reads a biography of Fassbinder knows that Fassbinder also owed a lot to Hermann. Because without the help of Hermann, Fassbinder might not have had a chance to start his career. Irm Hermann, bot in front of and behind the camera, is the real unsung heroine of the New German Cinema.

Other Alternative Goddesses

Watching these actresses, you might have the same kind of amazement that you had when you watched Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001) or Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen, 1999).

1.Marianne Denicourt in Haut bas fragile (Jacques Rivette, 1995)
2.Petra Tikalova in Bunny (Mia Trachinger, 2000)
3.Ho-jung Kim in Nabi (Seong-wook Moon, 2001)
4.Emmanuelle Devos in Ma vie sexuelle (Arnaud Desplechin, 1996)
5.Hannelore Elsner in No Place to Go (Oskar Roehler, 2000)
6.Florence Vignon in Le Bleu des villes (Stephane Brize, 1999)
7.Sylvia Chang in Full Moon in New York (Stanley Kwan, 1989)
8.Darling Narita in Bang (Ash, 1995)
9.Rene Liu in The Personals (Kuo-fu Chen, 1998)
10.Morgane More in Saint-Cyr (Patricia Mazuy, 2000)

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