Friday, July 29, 2005

In The Mood For Love

Where does love go when two people who feel a mad attraction to each other never act on it? Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai's "In the Mood for Love" is less a movie than a dream meditation on the nature of love that never steps into the light. Plotwise, not much happens. But when the movie's over you feel that it has taken you somewhere, that it has given shape and tone and texture to a love that hasn't even had a chance to breathe in the real world. It's a reassurance that love never simply goes "nowhere," dissipating like perfume in the air. It has its own kind of energy and life, and if you sit quietly enough, you can almost hear it thrumming.

Wong is by no means a linear director; he prefers latticelike structures, nets of visuals and sound that allow us to scoop up bits of information like shimmery fish. As with his gorgeous 1995 "Chungking Express," it's not always possible to figure out exactly what's going on in "In the Mood for Love" -- but then, that's not really necessary. The potent glances that pass between the two lovers, played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, and even just the way the actors move, are enough to carry you.

The setting is Hong Kong in 1962. Su Li-zhen (Cheung), a young wife whose husband is almost perpetually away on business, takes a room in the apartment of Mrs. Suen (Rebecca Pan). That same day Chow Mo-wan (Leung), a journalist whose wife is also away much of the time, moves into a room down the hall. Both find themselves forced into the role of being on-again, off-again solitary people, deprived of the luxury of settling comfortably into the rhythm of life with one other person. They pass on the stairs of the local noodle shop, barely glancing at each other, partly out of propriety and partly out of embarrassment, as if each hopes to scurry away secretly with his or her takeout dinner without wearing the loneliness of it as a symbol.

The two barely speak until Chow realizes that their respective spouses are having an affair. Shocked and hurt, they discuss the situation in an almost businesslike way, despite the fact that miniature galaxies of feeling have already passed between them in their furtive glances. They become cautious friends, and it's clear they're both considering the possibility of falling in love with each other. But when Chow pushes forward ever so slightly, Su retreats, mostly out of a sense of honor. She doesn't feel the two of them should behave as badly as their spouses have. They take breaks from their friendship, but as time goes on, it falls into a gentle if slightly irregular rhythm, a loping ballad in 5/4 where the extra beat is the thing that sets them apart from all the other lovers in the world.

Wong's Hong Kong streets, often slicked with rain, and color-patchwork interiors have a glistening, dreamy look. Almost every frame is buffed to a subtle romantic glow. Credited to two cinematographers -- Mark Li Ping-bin and Wong's frequent collaborator, Christopher Doyle -- "In the Mood for Love" looks period-perfect and yet also exists in a romantic nowheresville beyond any real time or place. Tendrils of cigarette smoke hang in the air between the lovers like specters of possibilities; the corridors of the hotel where they meet -- not to sleep together but to discuss the martial-arts story Chow is working on -- look both lively and lonely, the clashing patterns of curtains, wallpaper and tile floor a mismatched surprise.

Wong directs his actors beautifully, although the gentle two-steps-forward, four-back restraint he summons from them must have made him maddening to work with. (In a New York Times Magazine interview, Cheung said she became so frustrated working with Wong that she swore she'd never do so again -- until she saw how beautifully the movie turned out.)

Leung -- not to be confused with the actor who starred in Jean-Jacques Annaud's "The Lover," Tony Leung Kar-fai -- has a grave, refined presence, but there's a boyishness to his dignity that's almost overtly sexual. Cheung, one of the most staggeringly beautiful actresses working in the movies today, lends soft, understated expressiveness to her character, a woman who's afraid to let her face betray what she really feels. Her body language tells a good half the story of the character. We often see her walking from behind, dressed in her brightly colored, fitted, extremely high-necked cheung sams; her gait has a sensuous, high-heeled amble. The dresses, restrained in fit but not in color or pattern, mark her as a modest, fashionable woman of her time and place, but even so, there's something potentially free and modern about her. She's like a cautious, resting butterfly, wings temporarily folded but ready to fly at any time.

As actors, Leung and Cheung are balmily attuned to each other here. Although their romance never ignites, it throws off pure, soothing warmth. Wong's rhythmic sense as a director is different from that of Ang Lee, whose "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" also cradles an unfulfilled love story at its center. Wong's picture moves more slowly than Lee's, but there's more energy pulsing through it. The lovers' restraint feels lush and vital, a current between them that's practically a third character. By the time Leung finally takes Cheung's hand -- it happens late in the movie -- it's as if a dam has broken, yet the delicacy of the gesture remains intact. It's not soaked in melodrama.

In one scene, Chow and Su sit in a cafe, discussing their respective spouses' indiscretion even as the bond between them has already shown itself to be filament fine and strong. The lovers are shown to us mostly in profile, which means each actor has only half the usual available resources to work with: one eye and half a smile apiece.

But they telegraph their desire beautifully and perfectly, and the fact that their faces are partially hidden from us enhances the sense of intimacy between them. They're two halves of one exceptional whole, prevented by circumstance from ever coming into the open. But the fact that their love never flowers hardly matters. As they've written it out, it exists fully formed and three-dimensional somewhere in space, like a geometry problem that extends far beyond the paper it's written on -- backward, forward, from left to right and from East to West.

The Virgin Suicides

Jeffrey Eugenides' novel "The Virgin Suicides," set in 1970s suburbia, is a creamy, moonbeam-laden love letter to the girls of the day, in their French-cut T-shirts, bell-bottoms and Love's Baby Soft. It's a tender and beautifully written book, one that makes the case once and for all that boys can be a sentimental and perceptive lot, but there's one big problem with it: It's so obsessively detailed that by the end it's almost unreadable.

The book's narrators are a group of boys who've grown into men, but who can't leave their memories of five neighborhood girls, the Lisbon sisters, behind them. If all boys had as many exposed nerve endings as they seem to, we'd live in a world with no skyscrapers and no bridges.

Leave it to a woman to boil all the excess, leaden moisture out of Eugenides' book and leave just the bare-bones poetry. Sofia Coppola's adaptation of "The Virgin Suicides" -- it's her directorial debut, and she also adapted the screenplay -- captures the loveliest visuals and bits of language from Eugenides' book and faithfully, but not slavishly, transfers them to the screen. There's no irony in Coppola's treatment; she nabs all of the book's humor without layering on too many smirks or ironic winks. She connects with the essential purity of Eugenides' story, stripping it down to its bare essentials and cutting straight to everything that's wonderful about it. It's a movie adaptation that's filled with love.

That's not to say that if a man had made "The Virgin Suicides" it would have been a worse movie, but it's safe to assume it would have been a rather different one. I've never been one for ghettoizing, and certainly not canonizing, female artists; it always seemed to me a better idea to look at a work, as much as is humanly possible, for what it is rather than to fixate on what's between the legs of the person who made it.

But there's no denying that men and women bring different sensibilities to their work. And you can't ignore the unusually large number of high-profile pictures made by female directors in the past year or so, among them Kimberly Peirce's "Boys Don't Cry," Mary Harron's "American Psycho" and Bonnie Hunt's "Return to Me," as well as "The Virgin Suicides."

What's always frustrating about the trumpeting of "hot" new female directors is that, as always, the ones who get all the attention haven't necessarily made the best movies. Stacy Cochran is a case in point. Her wry 1992 suburban fairy tale, "My New Gun," made barely a blip on the radar screen, and her next feature, the more delicate and subtly shaded "Boys" (1996), was misunderstood by most of the critics who saw it and went unseen by just about everyone else. Cochran presented a film at Sundance this year that has yet to find a distributor.

There's also a tendency to overlook female filmmakers working in other countries, some of whom have been making subtly terrific movies for years: New Zealander Jane Campion earned lots of attention in 1993 for "The Piano," a foolish if visually lush movie that tapped into the feminist zeitgeist of its time. The success of "The Piano" was treated as some sort of signal that female directors had at last "broken through" -- though through to what, I'm not exactly sure -- and I would have been thrilled if its popularity could have ensured greater international success (or at least attention) in subsequent years for filmmakers like Great Britain's Carine Adler ( "Under the Skin" ); France's Claire Denis ("I Can't Sleep," "Beau Travail" ) or Catherine Breillat ( "Romance" ); or Canada's Lea Pool ("Set Me Free").

The point is, even though it's hard not to notice when a clutch of female filmmakers suddenly appear on the scene, it's never a good idea to lump them into a group that's defined by some broad women's view. But there's nothing wrong with admitting that women are likely to view things differently from the way men do.

Look at Denis' "Beau Travail," an adaptation of Melville's "Billy Budd" set in the Foreign Legion. On its most basic level, "Beau Travail" is a paean to the beauty of men's bodies. But even when Denis, with the help of her terrific cinematographer, Agnes Godard, shows us rippling muscles and sweat-dappled skin, the images are distinctly different from what you might see in gay porn. Denis doesn't sentimentalize or declaw the male form -- she revels in its supple, tigerlike qualities -- but she does view it with a certain amount of tender regard, tacitly acknowledging that there's always a fragility to that shell of skin and bone and muscle, regardless of whether it belongs to a man or a woman.

What's interesting in particular about "The Virgin Suicides" isn't just that it was made by a woman, but that it's a case of a woman's adapting a novel about a group of young men's nostalgia for the unattainable girls of their youth. In the old days, you might have said those girls were imprisoned in the male gaze. But Coppola's picture is completely nonjudgmental about the narrators' love for the Lisbon girls (although it should go without saying that love shouldn't be subject to anyone's judgment).

The picture has a feminine sensibility in terms of its dreamy languor, the pearlescent glow that hovers around it like a nimbus. (It's beautifully shot by Edward Lachman and features a willowy score by Air.) But there's also a clear-eyed precision at work here, almost as if Coppola subconsciously wanted to make sure she captured Eugenides' vision, while also giving a sense of the Lisbon sisters as real live girls.

There are five Lisbon sisters, all beautiful and clear-skinned, with that straight, fair California-girl hair that every girl of the era wanted desperately. Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst) is the most luscious of them, and sends off signals that she just may be the most sexually adventurous.

Cecilia (Hanna Hall), the youngest, is a sensitive, troubled girl, given to traipsing around in a tatty vintage wedding dress, and for reasons that no one is quite able to fathom she attempts to slit her wrists very early in the story; she recovers, only to successfully off herself shortly thereafter.

The story is told from the point of view of a small group of neighborhood boys (represented by a wonderful voice-over by Giovanni Ribisi) who worship the Lisbon girls. The mysterious death only enhances the sisters' aura. But even before Cecilia's suicide, the girls had been carefully watched by their stern, overprotective mother (Kathleen Turner) and, to a lesser extent, by their docile math-teacher dad (James Woods).

After Cecilia's death, the household becomes even more cloistered, until local hottie Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) falls madly in love with Lux and decides he simply must take her to the homecoming dance; the only way she's allowed to go is if her sisters attend, too.

The real charm of "The Virgin Suicides" lies in the details, in the way it evokes both the era and the peculiar romantic fixations of awkward teenage boys. The movie gets the suburbs of the time exactly right, with the trim split-level houses and impossibly verdant lawns, the streets lined with lazy trees (and, in this case, dying ones -- there are references in the plot to diseased elms). Rec-room basements decorated with so much cheerful anxiety they can't help looking sullen; dens where family members gather, glassy-eyed and silent, to watch nature shows.

Coppola's suburbia is partly a half-remembered dream state and partly an optimistic interior decorator's sketch, a conglomeration of how people lived and how they desperately wanted to live.

Coppola's just as good, though, at showing what happens when that idealized world goes off-kilter. After Cecilia's death, the Lisbon home takes on a dullish cast, becoming heavy with grief and awkwardness. Coppola captures it with just a few shots: A priest (Scott Glenn, in a moody cameo) comes to bring solace to the family and opens the door to one of the girls' rooms, where he finds them, silent and listless, arranged in a haphazard starfish shape on the floor, a tableau of youthful beauty rendered lethargic and numbed by sorrow.

Of course it's the girls, as reflected in the eyes of the boys who love them, who sit like queens at the movie's throne. Dunst's completely winning Lux, with her velvet-powder-puff skin and wild-cherry smile, may represent the ultimate teen-dream ideal, but she's a believable one. She's a girl who's so open to the pleasure of sex she wants everything it has to offer: the giggling, the teasing, the whole damn pas de deux.

It's easy to see why Trip -- a lizard-like charmer in his slim-fit cowboy shirts and puka shells, an oversexed creature who charms young women and old alike -- wants no other girl. "You're a stone fox," he tells her with a kind of awestruck dumbness. Prefab as the compliment is, he makes you see it's been poured directly from his heart.

Trip gets three friends together so the group of them can take the Lisbon girls to the dance, rescuing them from the torpor of their too-long-in-mourning home. The dance sequence sparkles from the moment the boys pick the girls up at the Lisbon house: The sisters file down the stairs in their oddly shaped, matching homemade dresses, a procession of fairy tale maidens decked out in Butterick finery.

The dance itself, featuring a high school gym that's been halfheartedly transformed into a glumly festive forest by the simple hanging of a glitter curtain in front of the bleachers, captures perfectly those futilely hopeful school dances where the collective wish that something good would happen hangs in the air like a toxic cloud.

The forlorn hope of that dance is what makes it so moving: It's hilarious when Lux, her sister Therese (the charming Leslie Hayman) and their respective dates cluster behind that tinsel curtain to drink peach schnapps and make out. But it's still easy to see how they're hurtling themselves toward something, any old thing, that might change their lives. And when Therese beams at her date and says, "I'm having the best time," her utter sincerity is heartrending. Who ever had a good time at those things? But her simple declaration represents the way we always hoped against hope we would.

The music in "The Virgin Suicides" couldn't have been more perfectly chosen, not just for the way it evokes the era but for the way it builds subtle strata of moods: The homecoming dance, set to ELO's "Strange Magic" and 10CC's "I'm Not in Love," takes on a kind of swimmy surrealism. And it's a delicious joke when Trip first swaggers onto the scene to the tune of Heart's "Magic Man."

The picture's single loveliest sequence involves not just music but the magic of record albums. The girls, sequestered by their parents in their suburban prison, receive a signal from the boys who love them: Their phone rings, and when they answer, Todd Rundgren's "Hello It's Me" drifts through the receiver. The girls cluster around their hi-fi to send a song back, and the plaintive volley continues: Gilbert O'Sullivan's mopey "Alone Again (Naturally)" is countered by the Bee Gees' "Run to Me," which is followed by Carole King's "So Far Away," the songs' plaintive messages traversing the phone lines like lantern signals exchanged between lonely sailors.

The whole time, the narrative of "The Virgin Suicides" is leading up to a single mysterious act. Yet the story isn't a mystery at all, but simply the affirmation of a simple truth: That even if memories of the people we once loved (from afar or up-close) are embroidered and enhanced over time, that doesn't necessarily make them less valuable or less "true." In other words, disillusionment doesn't necessarily equal enlightenment. In "The Virgin Suicides," Michael Par appears as the older Trip, skinny and decrepit-looking and wasting away in some bleak drug-rehab center (and still wearing the same ultra-fitted cowboy shirts). Par's grown-up and burned-out Trip tells the story, in flashback, of what happened between him and Lux, and when he asserts that he never loved anyone as much, you've no choice but to believe him.

The older Trip is touching not because he's so down-and-out, but because in talking about Lux he's momentarily transformed. You see a glimmer of the stud he once was flash across his face; even his body language changes a bit. Trip never had the ability to see Lux as the woman she really was. Hanging onto his dream vision seems to have done nothing but suck the life out of him -- and yet you wonder, if he'd been able to thoroughly dismiss her memory, would he have just shriveled up and blown away completely?

Some readers (in my experience they were mostly women) were frustrated with Eugenides' book for the way it fixated on the men's view of the women instead of the women themselves. But "The Virgin Suicides" isn't simply about the way men can fall hopelessly in love with ideals; it's about how they can be ultimately undone by them, and Coppola understands that perfectly. She re-creates their vision for us in all its beauty, but she also suggests the holes in it -- the dark spots that dance in front of you when you've been stupid enough to stare directly at the sun.

She has compassion for those boys, but there's no doubt that her heart really goes out to those girls. Descending that staircase to greet their anxious dates, they weren't sorceresses or fairy queens or succubi. They were just young girls in bad dresses, waiting to be understood. Instead, they were simply loved.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

If you've ever had a dream in which you're painfully aware of having lost something, or someone, but you have no idea what or who has slipped away from you -- a dream in which an absence is a presence, a cookie-cutter-shaped hole moving like a ghost in the space around you -- you'll understand "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" intuitively. You may also find it devastating.

This is French director Michel Gondry's second full-length movie, written by Charlie Kaufman (with whom Gondry also collaborated on his first picture, the 2000 "Human Nature"). In "Eternal Sunshine," Jim Carrey plays Joel, a man who arranges to have every memory of his ex-girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), erased from his brain, only to realize that those memories may be more dear to him than the failed union itself: They're all he's got left.

The movie traces the romance in reverse-order flashbacks, starting with the most painful memories of the breakup and working forward to the earliest, sweetest ones. Joel realizes that in allowing bits of Clementine to disappear, he's also erasing chunks of himself. "Eternal Sunshine" is a meditation on the way other people go to work on us in ways we're barely aware of, like ghostwriters who grab the pen when we're not looking, writing new chapters for us that are better than any we could have come up with on our own.

The best moments of "Eternal Sunshine" are deeply and desperately moving: At times the picture feels achingly alive. In fact, the first 20 minutes or so of "Eternal Sunshine" are so free of gimmickry and self-consciousness that I almost couldn't believe it had been written by Kaufman, who has built a tidy career out of writing cool-weird puzzle movies, brain teasers for modern audiences who might get bored if they were left to do the work of simply confronting their emotions. Was there more to Kaufman than I'd previously given him credit for?

The answer is that, yes, there may be. And yet there's still not quite enough.

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" represents a failure of nerve: As if Gondry and Kaufman weren't sure that the story of Joel and Clementine would hold us, the doomed couple's unfolding-in-reverse romance is intercut with a subplot filled with zany touches, like Mark Ruffalo as a sexy-awkward techno-geek in Nutty Professor glasses, and Kirsten Dunst as a dippy-adorable office assistant who edyercates herself by memorizing quotations from "Bartlett's." (In her most torturously cute moment, she recites from the poem from which the movie takes its title, attributing it to "Pope Alexander.") The ballad of Joel and Clementine is a piercing reverie, gorgeously sun-dappled and at times so wrenching that it's almost painful to watch. But whenever Ruffalo and Dunst -- or any of the movie's other numerous sidekicks, like far-from-mad-scientist Tom Wilkinson, or Elijah Wood as Ruffalo's well-meaning but dimwitted assistant -- appear, the movie jerks us out of our dream state.

You might argue that this is a dramatic device, a way of breaking what would otherwise be an incredibly intense story into easily digestible bits. But I think it's symptomatic of a much larger, thornier problem in moviemaking today, one that undercuts the reasons movies have come to mean so much to us, emotionally and culturally, in the first place: The '90s were all about ironic detachment -- it was uncool to care too much about anything, or at least to admit as much. Now that we've tread somewhat tentatively into the 21st century, most of us claim to have gotten over the irony thing. And yet, many of the movies of the past five years that have been hailed as inventive and interesting by young audiences -- pictures like "Memento," "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," the last two written by Kaufman -- are also movies that work hard to wow us with their jigsaw intricacies.

It's as if young filmmakers fear that their audiences will become bored with a movie if they don't have a clever mind-boggler to wrestle with along the way (the equivalent of a magnetic bingo game on a long car trip). In grappling with these perplexing riddles, we're supposedly exercising our intellect. But isn't it also possible that we're using them as a handy diversion, a way of distancing ourselves from emotions that might be too strong for us to deal with easily? Labyrinthine plots are supposed to stimulate us. But are they really just distracting us from the work at hand -- the work of feeling?

I'm not saying audiences shouldn't take pleasure in intricate movies. It can be exhilarating, and just plain fun, to feel your brain and your imagination working in tandem, as you do while watching pictures like "The Usual Suspects" or "Femme Fatale" or "The Big Sleep" (the last a movie that doesn't make much sense at the end, although getting there is so much fun that it hardly matters).

But just as there's a difference between knowing things and being informed, there's a difference between going all the way with a movie and going only as far as is convenient or comfortable. One of the most popular features ever run in Salon was a 2001 article called "Everything You Wanted to Know About 'Mulholland Drive,'" a dissection of every explicable or inexplicable mystery of David Lynch's ode to both the gleaming surface and tawdry underbelly of Hollywood. "Mulholland Drive" does work as a puzzle, and its intricacies are enjoyable. Personally, though, I'm much more interested in its hypnotic poetry and the tarnished-tinsel quality of its images. And while it's always fun to ponder Lynchian details, you can miss the point of Lynch's movies entirely if you spend too much energy pondering the significance of the scruffy maniac in the parking lot or the contents of the blue box.

That said, I suspect that whether they recognize it or not, audiences yearn for movies that can make them think and feel. And for many moviegoers, "Eternal Sunshine" may fit the bill. There's so much that's right with the movie that, just a few days after seeing it, I've already done a fairly decent job of blotting out everything I hated about it as I watched it -- we all have our own memory-erasing techniques.

The beginning of "Eternal Sunshine" is nothing short of lovely; in fact, it's close to perfect. We see Carrey's Joel waking up in his plain-vanilla outskirts-of-New York apartment on a shivery winter morning; striding toward his car in the parking lot only to see that the driver's side door has been gouged; waiting on a crowded train platform, headed for his job in the city; and then making a last-minute dash for a train to Montauk, for reasons we won't fully understand till the end of the movie. There he walks along a doleful blue-gray beach. He sees an interesting-looking girl. We hear what he's thinking in a gruff, whispery voiceover that sounds as if it's emerging from the seashell of our own deep subconscious. He asks himself, for example, why he falls in love immediately with anyone who shows him the slightest bit of attention?

On the train back to the city, he gets acquainted with the interesting-looking girl, who is, of course, Clementine. She has blue hair that has further rebelled against authority by sticking out every which way; it will change color several more times during the course of the movie. ("I apply my personality in a paste," she explains to Joel, half apologetically and half defensively.) Their first conversation has a nervous, twitchy energy, animated by their attraction to each other and by their desperate hope that each will find the other amusing and intriguing. (She: "That's the oldest trick in the stalker's book." He: "There's a stalker's book? I've got to read that one.") They speak to each other like people who have just met, after having been lovers for ages.

We want them to be together possibly even more than they do, and Gondry and Kaufman build on that foundation for the rest of "Eternal Sunshine." As the story progresses, we learn that the opening was a flashback of sorts: Joel and Clementine have broken up, bitterly. Joel hopes to win her back by buying her a necklace from her favorite store (in one of the movie's gentlest and most resonating touches, he has chosen a gift that's clearly perfect for her character, a pendant made from a hand-painted shell), but when he shows up at the bookstore where she works, she looks at him as if she doesn't know him. He's crushed, and then angry; before long he finds out that she's had her memories of him erased from her brain, a service offered by a company called Lacuna, which operates out of a city office that looks more briskly efficient than shady.

Joel, in an act of despairing retaliation, decides he wants the procedure done, too. He asks Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Wilkinson), the doctor-slash-guru who invented the technique, if the erasure carries any risk of brain damage. "Technically, the process is brain damage," Mierzwiak responds with a straight face and a dash of doctorly confidence. The process involves, among other things, knocking the patient out with drugs, placing a helmet on his head that looks like a cross between a colander and an old-fashioned bonnet hairdryer, and attaching a laptop to the whole contraption. A team of trained technicians -- that would be Ruffalo's Stan and Elijah Wood's Patrick -- then locate the pertinent memories on an onscreen map of the patient's brain and zap them one by one.

The unconscious Joel unravels his and Clementine's history, starting with the breakup. But as he moves back through the relationship, surveying all the small moments that make up the mosaic of a relationship, he realizes there are parts of Clementine he can't bear to give up. At one point, the two of them are making love underneath a comforter -- the light shines through it faintly, turning their faces funny colors, and we feel we've been drawn deep inside their tent of intimacy. We see Joel running through hallways of memories, and they're gobbled behind him as if by an invisible crocodile. In one sequence, he and Clementine run past a fence, and its planks disappear one by one, like a disappearing zipper made of piano keys.

The first time Joel hits a memory he knows he can't live without, he pleads, "Oh please, let me hang on to just this one!" The technicians, of course, can't hear him, and they're barely paying attention to their jobs anyway: Stan has invited his girlfriend, Mary (Dunst), over to keep him company. Mary is also the receptionist at Lacuna, and while she takes a fleeting interest in Stan's work, the two of them are much more interested in setting the laptop on autopilot, raiding Joel's refrigerator and liquor cabinet, and stripping down to their underwear and jumping up and down on his bed, barely bothering to avoid his passed-out, helmeted, pajama-clad form. Meanwhile, after having a beer or two, Patrick has taken off completely to spend the evening with his new girlfriend.

"Eternal Sunshine" cuts between that exaggerated, jokey subplot and the real drama of the picture: the desperate efforts of Joel and Clementine, even as they're locked in the confines of Joel's brain, to stick together. (At one point, conspiring to foil the brain-erasers, they hide out in Joel's childhood kitchen: He crouches, in feetie-pajamas, beneath an outsize kitchen table; she has adopted the guise of his childhood baby sitter, in mini-dress and lace-up go-go boots.)

The problem is that the movie stretches too hard to come up with wacky twists and turns, when what's really riveting is the way Joel and Clementine strive to stay connected to one another. The narrative machinations strain at cleverness, but they can't live up to the movie's visual inventiveness, which is so casual and offhanded that it renders this weird fantasy world wholly believable. Gondry built his early career directing commercials and music videos. His work with Björk, in particular, in videos like "Bachelorette," "Human Behaviour" and "Isobel," have an unearthly, quivering quality reminiscent of the early days of filmmaking, the kind of thing Georges Méliès might have done if he were working today. Gondry gave us miniature airplanes sprouting inside light bulbs (before busting out to scatter through the air like insects) and books that start out normal-sized and grow to gigantic proportions.

In "Eternal Sunshine," Gondry's vision is rarely overtly fanciful; he's much more interested in the magic of straightforwardness. (His cinematographer here is Ellen Kuras, and she gives the movie a look of dreamy urgency that's perfect for the story.) The visual effects in "Eternal Sunshine" are stunningly simple: Gondry plays with scale in the kitchen scene, using giant furniture to make Joel seem fragile and tiny. (Gondry has used similar effects in his music videos, and they're also evocative of the effective visual gags Spike Jonze concocted for "Being John Malkovich.") And I have never before seen an everyday quilt lit up with the fragile glow of a Chinese paper lantern. It's the kind of image you drink in and savor, and it's also a metaphor for the connection and warmth that Joel and Clementine have lost. "Eternal Sunshine" is most elegiac when there are no words in sight.

And yet it's to Kaufman's credit that the dialogue between Joel and Clementine always rings true. If you can comb past the craziness around them and just listen to them, you hear that they speak to each other just as people in love (or falling out of it) do. Carrey and Winslet are wonderful here. Clementine is different from any character Winslet has ever played. The actress typically radiates angelic calmness; here, she's always vibrating, an electrified rabbit that can't be turned off. Yet it's impossible not to care for her: Her dippiness isn't an affectation, but a light beam that shines in a wriggly line straight from her soul. She's flaky and feisty in equal measures, a mix of qualities that makes her fragility that much more believable.

Carrey is Winslet's perfect counterpart. Although much of what he does here is funny in a sidelong way, this is a deeply serious, and wondrous, performance. When we finally get around to seeing Joel and Clementine's first meeting, she asks him if she can have a piece of chicken off his plate, and then grabs it before he can say yes. "It was like we were already lovers," Joel reflects, not dreamily but as if he were stating an indisputable fact on which the fate of the nations of the world depended. Winslet is the one with the large, searching eyes, but in my memory of Carrey's performance, his are much larger: They're striving to take everything in, to record events and places but, chiefly, to memorize Clementine's face. It's a face that means the world to him, and it's in danger of disappearing forever. Carrey's Joel is an ordinary guy -- there's something inexplicably touching about his regular-joe shirt-and-sweater outfits -- but his romantic desperation is like something out of a 19th century novel or a '20s silent film. It's large and magnificent, a force that can't help busting out of the framework of everyday life.

Meanwhile, Dunst's Mary and Ruffalo's Stan jump up and down in their underwear, Wood's Patrick bumbles through his newfound romance, and Dr. Mierzwiak's jealous wife shows up unannounced. We're supposed to laugh, or feel nervous apprehension, or wonder what kind of crazy thing is going to happen next -- but all we want to do is get back to Joel and Clementine. Those loopy shenanigans constitute the movie's connective tissue, but it feels stretched out and feeble. What's real and what's not? Kaufman and Gondry seem to be asking again and again, without realizing that the very faces of their two lead actors have completely erased our interest in those types of questions. The filmmakers busy themselves puttering around the boundaries between fantasy and illusion, without realizing that they're the only ones who care: Once we're inside Joel's head, that is our reality.

I've been critical of Kaufman in the past, chiefly because I despised the phoniness of "Adaptation." But if I hold Kaufman responsible for much of what troubles me about "Eternal Sunshine," I have to allow that much of what's right about it must also stem directly from him: The movie is redolent with wistfulness and melancholy, and those aren't things you can layer on after the fact.

The disappointment I felt at the end of "Eternal Sunshine" was almost crushing, simply because there were sections of it that were as daring in their emotional directness as anything I've seen in years. Did Kaufman, or Kaufman and Gondry, construct the movie as they did simply so audiences wouldn't leave the theater feeling too devastated to engage in conversation, let alone a cocktail or a cappuccino? Maybe. Yet there are moments in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" that bring us as close as anyone should ever come to staring at the sun. The movie's warmth is irresistible; the risk of getting burned should have been left to us.

Before Sunset

The tagline on the movie poster for Richard Linklater's extraordinary and beloved 1995 "Before Sunrise" reads, "Can the greatest romance of your life last only one night?" It's a question that can be answered in two possible ways. First, with another question: "How does the human heart define 'one night'?" Or, better yet, with another movie -- in this case, the delicate but ardent "Before Sunset."

In "Before Sunrise," Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke played Celine and Jesse, young students who meet up on a train while traveling through Europe. She's French; he's American. Their first conversation is creaky and halting, a sorry old freight train struggling to make it uphill, with the earnestly eager Jesse working desperately (as men so often do) to engage the luminous Celine in a conversation that will last more than 30 seconds. Celine keeps trying to return to her book, doing her darnedest to pretend she's not intrigued by him.

But she warms to Jesse, almost against her better judgment (as women so often do), and the two decide to disembark in Vienna and wander the city together until Celine's train leaves the next morning. They spend the time talking, sometimes about heady metaphysical conceits and sometimes about nothing much at all. By the end of the picture, they're intimate strangers, like an ancient married couple in a fairytale who magically awake one day to find themselves young and beautiful and yearning to discover each other anew again.

At the end of "Before Sunrise," Celine and Jesse part, reluctantly, agreeing to meet again in Vienna six months later. It's an ending that works by speaking directly to our indignance, to our proprietary feelings about characters we've come to love in an extremely compressed amount of time. How could these two people even think of moving on and living a life without us, their tag-along voyeurs? And yet that's exactly what they do, leaving us to wonder: Did they keep that appointment in Vienna? And if so, what happened next?

"Before Sunset," which reunites Jesse and Celine after nine years, answers both of those questions, and yet it goes far beyond merely satisfying our curiosity. "Before Sunrise" was an opalescent picture, one that dazzled with subtle flecks of light. "Before Sunset" has an even subtler texture, and yet its muted patina leaves a more potent, longer-lasting afterglow. "Before Sunrise" captures the exhilaration of connecting with another person; "Before Sunset" moves forward from there, burrowing into territory that's more complex and dangerous, but also perhaps more vital. It reminds us that connections can remain strong even after we believe we've safely loosened them. And it offers the idea, alternately comforting and terrifying, that we don't have the luxury of moving further and further away from our most significant memories until they're just tiny specks in the distance; instead, they stick with us stubbornly, forcing us to fold them into our lives as we go on living. A romance that lasts just one night can change the rest of your eternity.

How true is that for Celine and Jesse, circa 2004? To say too much about "Before Sunset" is to give the game away. Or, as Jesse himself says, "In the words of my grandfather, 'To answer that would take the piss out of the whole thing.'" But I think it's safe to tell you Jesse is a successful novelist who has just published a fictionalized account of his night with Celine. Paris, where she now lives, is the last stop on his book tour. He gives his last reading among the cozy, cramped jumble of shelves at Shakespeare & Co., and as he's fielding questions from journalists about the possible real-life genesis of his story (dodging them is perhaps more like it), Celine herself suddenly appears. Jesse keeps talking, barely breaking stride, but it's obvious from the look on his face -- it has the guarded radiance of a decent guy who's learned, the hard way, not to expect too much out of reality -- that there's one particular thing he'd desperately hoped would happen. And finally, it has.

Celine greets Jesse with the kind of awkwardness that is its own warmth; their individual force fields start to disintegrate around them at the merest touch, although, on the surface, they both scramble to maintain their defenses. Jesse has less than an hour and a half before he catches his flight home, and he and Celine decide (as if it were actually a decision to be made) to spend that time together. As they walk through the city, starting out at a café, wandering through cobbled streets and eventually onto a tourist boat on the Seine, they share details about their lives: Celine works for a humanitarian-aid organization and is currently dating a photojournalist she claims to be in love with. Jesse is married and has a kid he adores.

Their conversation meanders from the pleasant catching-up that happens between old friends, to veiled admissions about their respective frustrations and disappointments, to declarations whose directness is piercing. As Celine and Jesse wander and talk, the camera lingers on their faces for seven or eight minutes at a time, as if it can't bear to tear itself away from their conversation, or, more specifically, from their presence itself.

We can't tear ourselves away either. The movie is structured in real time -- it's 80 minutes long, and its pacing is so fluid that the picture is over long before you're ready to let go of the characters. (Like its predecessor, "Before Sunset" ends with an implied question -- you'll have to see the movie to find out what it is.) And, like "Before Sunrise," it's beautifully shot by Lee Daniel -- its surface is both modestly low-key and lustrous.

Delpy and Hawke's performances seem to be actually layered into the movie's structure: It's a given that Celine and Jesse are entranced by each other, yet they maintain their sturdy façades through much of the movie -- the feelings beneath the surface don't so much spill out in a torrent as sift out like magic dust, a testament to the control and sensitivity of these two actors. Delpy gets to play the neurotic cutup: She tells Jesse the story of how, when she was living in New York as a student (as it turns out, he was living there at the same time), a police officer told her she'd better get a gun. Her words come out in a breathless somersault: "Me with a gun, I mean, that's really scary!" Her eyes go all googly, like those of a cartoon mermaid.

But even Celine knows she's using the entertainment value of her neuroses as a shield: When she allows her deeper feelings to tumble out, her vulnerability closes in on her. We see how the restless, thoughtful 20-ish girl we met in the first picture is not so different from this alternately poised and goofy woman in her early 30s -- the chief difference is that the woman wonders if she may be running out of things to look forward to. Delpy is trimmer now, more willowy. Her face has lost its puppyish innocence, but gained an incandescent thoughtfulness.

How does Jesse respond to this older, and yet not so different, Celine? Hawke's performance matches Delpy's note for note -- he's the woodwind to her strings. When you first compare this Hawke to the 1995 version ("Before Sunset" includes a brief montage of images from the earlier movie), you may think he hasn't aged much at all. But when you look more closely, you see how his tail-wagging boyishness has settled into something sturdier, more reliable -- not as if he's accidentally lost his innocence along the way but as if he'd consciously tuned it out. Explaining his decision to get married, he admits to Celine that he had been obsessed with "this idea of your best self. And I wanted to pursue that even if it overrode my more honest self." And at times, he looks at Celine with such anxious expectation in his eyes that he seems infinitely more vulnerable than even his younger self.

The script for "Before Sunset" was written by Linklater, Delpy and Hawke (from a story by Linklater and Kim Krizan, who collaborated with the director on the screenplay for "Before Sunrise"). It seems as if the three set out with a stern mission for themselves and never veered away from it. "Before Sunset" is that rare adult romance that doesn't condescend to adults. We generally accept that young people are more vulnerable to suffering at the hands of love. The prevailing wisdom is that you don't feel things as acutely as you get older, which, like so many nuggets of prevailing wisdom, is true -- except when it's not.

"Before Sunset" accepts no prevailing wisdom. In love, there's no black and white, only rosy grays, and "Before Sunset" revels in the freedom of that limitless palette. Although there isn't a single kiss in this love story, it's intensely erotic -- and more to the point, it's not afraid of eroticsm's juicier and more forthright twin, carnality.

The suggestion, I think, is that connections between souls can be as solid as, and even messier than, connections between bodies. At one point Jesse confesses to Celine, "If someone were to touch me, I'd dissolve into molecules." We often talk about romance as a dreamy thing, a gossamer blessing that floats down upon us from the sky. "Before Sunset" nudges us into rethinking everything we claim to know about romance. For all its elusiveness, it may be sturdier, earthier than we know. It just might be the glue that holds the molecules together.

Pop Matters

Physical Eloquence: It's a classic movie buff question. Somewhere, right now, in a bar or a video store or on a ticket holders' line, someone is struggling to name a great sequel that's been released in the years since The Godfather, Part Two (1974). In a perfect world, this discussion would end in a half-empty café, with participants singing the praises of the grand and delicate Before Sunset, director Richard Linklater's present-day return to the couple first seen in the 1995 romance, Before Sunrise.

The sequel opens in the renowned Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Co., where first-time novelist Jesse Wallace (Ethan Hawke) is giving a reading. The audience is small, mostly press, and they inquire as to the autobiographical nature of his work. They suspect what viewers of Before Sunrise already know: while traveling on a Eurorail pass nine years ago, Jesse fell in love with Celine (Julie Delpy), and spent one night with her in Vienna before flying home to America the next day. As he answers questions, she stands quietly off to the side until he notices her. They exchange affectionate, uncertain greetings, and again, his travel arrangements impose a time limit: Jesse is scheduled to leave for the airport in little over an hour.

Unlike its predecessor, Before Sunset unfolds in real time. Nearly all of Linklater's films have been restricted to a single night or day; excepting last year's crowd-pleasing detour, School of Rock, he's been working up to this film since his debut, Slacker (1991). The writer/director and his stars (who wrote much of their own dialogue and turn in career-best performances), pay close attention to conversational and emotional nuances. Early on, the talk can be rambling and contradictory, but Hawke and Delpy are good enough to convey to the audience what the characters strain to communicate to, or hide from, each other. Jesse's impending departure creates real tension, which is further magnified by the film's sense of place.

Whereas Celine and Jesse were tourists in Vienna, killing time in a church or riding the Ferris wheel seen in 1949's The Third Man (one of the earlier film's many unobtrusive allusions), Paris is Celine's hometown. Here, we are reminded of their separate lives and obligations. Much has occurred since they last met, including a missed reunion appointment in Vienna, as well as marriage and children for one of them. Gone are the colorful poets and gypsy fortunetellers who popped up at regular intervals in Before Sunrise, and gone with them is the youthful ignorance of pain and regret. Most of the Parisians we see are simply going about their own daily routines (smoking, jogging, shopping). The older Jesse and Celine talk to each other almost exclusively, eventually unable to suppress the questions and recriminations they never believed they'd have the chance to voice.

It's no accident, then, that Before Sunset avoids most expected landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe, showcasing instead neighborhood cafés or out-of-the-way gardens. The scene in Shakespeare & Co., where owner Sylvia Beach published the notorious first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922, reminds us that Jesse and Celine parted ways in Vienna on Bloomsday, 16 June. (Joyce set his masterpiece on that specific date to commemorate the anniversary of his first date with his wife, Nora.) Thus, Jesse's defense of autobiographical fiction reads not as an apology for his professed ignorance of conventionally dramatic subjects such as "violence and... political intrigue," but as an affirmation of Joyce's great theme -- the influence of past experience on human consciousness trying, ironically and heroically, to make sense of the present.

Celine observes, "Memory's a wonderful thing if you don't have to deal with the past." The night in Vienna was a life-changing encounter for both of them, and Before Sunset's stunning second half acknowledges the often dire consequences of such a momentous event. Tense undercurrents darken their early flirting and catching up, and rather than provide relief, an unexpectedly sweeping long shot of the pair walking along the Seine presages the conversation's spiral toward the operatic. By the time Jesse convinces Celine to join him for a boat ride -- it's for tourists, she protests -- the real-time structure has put the audience in their position, anxious to ask the big questions, yet dreading what are sure to be difficult, lacerating answers.

Regardless of their faults (if not because of them), viewers want good things for this couple. We might say that they remind us of our friends or of ourselves, and while that may be true, it denies the actors the credit they deserve. Even in such a talky film, their silences are as memorable as the longest monologues: Jesse cringes after an awkward sexual reference lands with a thud; Celine reaches for him as he stares out a car window, recounting a bad dream, but she pulls back, like a skittish animal, as he turns to face her. Their physical eloquence verges on heartbreaking.

Theories of cinematic representational modes are irrelevant when it comes to a film like this. Like novelist Richard Russo, another self-effacing American artist mining the infinite dramatic gradations of so-called "ordinary" lives, Linklater is generous in ways that can cause us to forget how good he really is. Developing the rhythms, evasions, confessions, accusations, and apologies of Jesse and Celine's conversation in real, mortality-haunted time, Before Sunset captures an articulate naturalism far more difficult to achieve than any CGI shot or Baudrillard-lite philosophy. The film illustrates the beautiful and frustrating complexity of human hearts seeking love and meaning in a life we know to be transient.

John Updike, also a Joyce acolyte and an obsessive chronicler of the fleeting moment, has explained that he revisits the character of Rabbit Angstrom every decade because Rabbit's perspective grants him "a way in" to complications that may otherwise seem overwhelming. What he sees through Rabbit's eyes, the writer admits, is often more interesting than what he perceives with his own. His audience aged with Rabbit, and they came to anticipate his regular revelations about the world they lived in. Jesse and Celine strike me as having this kind of potential: Hawke and Delpy have already said that they were interested in doing another sequel because the characters have stayed with them for so many years. To experience love, loss, loneliness, hope, and grief with them as they continue to age would be a source of great delight.

Sun Times

By Roger Egbert. Nine years have passed since Jesse and Celine met in Vienna and walked all over the city, talking as if there would be no tomorrow, and then promising to meet again in six months. "Were you there in Vienna, in December?" she asks him. Nine years have passed, and they have met again in Paris. Jesse wrote a novel about their long night together, and at a book signing he looked up, and there she was. They begin to talk again, in a rush, before he must leave to catch his flight back to America.

"Before Sunset" continues the conversation that began in "Before Sunrise" (1995), but at a riskier level. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are over 30 now, have made commitments in life, no longer feel as they did in 1995 that everything was possible. One thing they have learned, although they are slow to reveal it, is how rare it is to meet someone you feel an instinctive connection with. They walk out of the bookstore and around the corner and walk, and talk, and the director Richard Linklater films them in long, uninterrupted takes, so that the film feels like it exists in real time.

"Before Sunset" is a remarkable achievement in several ways, most obviously in its technical skill. It is not easy to shoot a take that is six or seven minutes long, not easy for actors to walk through a real city while dealing with dialogue that has been scripted but must sound natural and spontaneous. Yet we accept, almost at once, that this conversation is really happening. There's no sense of contrivance or technical difficulty.

Hawke and Delpy wrote the screenplay themselves, beginning from the characters and dialogue created the first time around by Linklater and Kim Krizan. They lead up to personal details very delicately; at the beginning they talk politely and in abstractions, edging around the topics we (and they) want answers to: Is either one married? Are they happy? Do they still feel that deep attraction? Were they intended to spend their lives together?

There is the feeling, as they discuss how their adult lives are unfolding, that sometimes the actors may be skirting autobiography. Certainly there is an unmistakable truth when Jesse, trying to describe what marriage is like, says "I feel like I'm running a small nursery with someone I used to date."

But the movie is not a confessional, and the characters don't rush into revelations. There is a patience at work, even a reticence, that reflects who they have become. They have responsibilities. They no longer have a quick instinctive trust. They are wary of revealing too much. They are grown-ups, although at least for this afternoon in Paris they are in touch with the open, spontaneous, hopeful kids they were nine years before.

"Before Sunrise" was a remarkable celebration of the fascination of good dialogue. But "Before Sunset" is better, perhaps because the characters are older and wiser, perhaps because they have more to lose (or win), and perhaps because Hawke and Delpy wrote the dialogue themselves. The film has the materials for a lifetime project; like the "7-Up" series, this is a conversation that could be returned to every 10 years or so, as Celine and Jesse grow older.

Delpy worked often with Krzystzof Kieslowski, the Polish master of coincidence and synchronicity, and perhaps it's from that experience that "Before Sunset" draws its fascination with intersecting timelines. When Celine and Jesse parted, they didn't know each other's last names or addresses -- they staked everything on that promise to meet again in six months. We find out what happened in Vienna in December, but we also find out that Celine studied for several years at New York University (just as Delpy did) while Jesse was living there (just as Hawke was). "In the months heading up to my wedding, I was thinking of you," he tells her. He even thought he saw her once, in the deli at 17th and Broadway. She knows the deli. Maybe he did.

What they are really discussing, as they trade these kinds of details, is the possibility that they missed a lifetime they were intended to spent together. Jesse eventually confesses that he wrote his book and came to Paris for a book signing because that was the only way he could think of to find her again. A little later, in a subtle moment of body language, she reaches out to touch him and then pulls back her hand before he sees it.

All this time they are walking and talking. Down streets, through gardens, past shops, into a cafe, out of the cafe, toward the courtyard where she has the flat she has lived in for four years. And it is getting later, and the time for his flight is approaching, just as he had to catch the train in Vienna. But what is free will for, if not to defy our plans? "Baby, you are gonna miss that plane," she says.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Rolling Stone July 05 - Jessica Alba

The Body & Soul of Jessica Alba: What is it about Jessica that makes you obsessed about her? Of course she's beautiful. But is there something else?? Maybe it's a magical curse. I dunno. Would I have been better off not knowing she existed so she wouldn't be on my mind so much?
--from one of the hundreds of Alba fan sites.

"I got plenty of ass."

Jessica Alba is hiking in Hollywood's Runyon Canyon with one hand gripping her left cheek. She is talking about her body. The body. Hers of the mesmerizing torso showcased to full, undulating perfection in several films, most recently Sin City and in this month's summer opus Fantastic Four, and bested only by the aforementioned ass, a heart-shaped beauty that sends men into fits of sputtering praise, but an ass that Alba nonetheless believes is a tad too large.

"I hear people in this industry talking shit all the time about how Jennifer Lopez is fat," she says tersely. "And I know if they're calling her fat, they're saying the same shit about me."

Rightly, Alba worries about this. At twenty-four, she has, thus far in her acting career, been largely defined by her body. Of her last eight films, she has been nearly naked in seven. She is five feet six and a half, 34-25-34, and weighs 120 pounds, depending upon her training schedule. But the numbers tell little of the story. Even beneath the baggy sweats she favors, Alba's body is a marvel of feminine proportion. A siren song. Everything slopes and curves where it should. Nothing juts or strains. Muscles blend into soft arcs.

As a result, Alba has consistently been ranked in the top ten on various men's-magazine fuckability polls. Web sites devoted to her celebrity hammer on her hotness with creepy persistence. Mark Wahlberg's reality-infused HBO show Entourage devoted an entire story arc to the conquest of Alba, her body hounded like the Holy Grail of scores by the young male cast, a quest Wahlberg himself has supposedly pursued in real life. Us Weekly even reported the rumor that Alba was Tom Cruise's first choice for a publicity girlfriend -the plum position ultimately handed over to default pick Katie Holmes. The thinking: Alba's carnal appeal is so powerful it could endear Mr. Cruise to a youth audience and affirm his virility once and for all.

She is good-humored about the scrutiny, but she confesses the one-note quality of it all is starting to wear her out. "The scripts I get are always for the whore, or the motorcycle chick in leather, or the horny maid," Alba says as she climbs a hill, panting slightly. "I get all these screenplays that start, 'Tawnya is in the shower. The water streams down her naked, perky breasts.' " She sighs, then laughs a tired laugh. "I don't think this is happening to Natalie Portman."

There are many reasons for this, and Alba, to her credit, has a firm grasp on most of them. Cast as she is, she hasn't yet had much opportunity to "act." The closest she comes to a scene-stealing turn is as one of the popular snots in Never Been Kissed, where she is indisputably funny and natural. The rest of her curriculum vitae -- including schlocky thrillers, the short-lived James Cameron sci-fi television series Dark Angel and the ill-conceived hip-hop-heroine picture Honey -- is less impressive. Her turn in Sin City stands out, but largely because Alba plays a stripper with a heart of gold. And a lasso.

"It's not always so great to be objectified," she says. "But I don't feel I have much of a choice right now. I'm young in my career. I know I have to strike when the iron is hot."

"Alba plans to capitalize on her God-given assets for the moment, saturate the market with her sultry image and then, when she "won't have to do that stuff just to get people's attention," she hopes to transition into someone like Diane Keaton or Goldie Hawn, women she admires for their kookiness and pluck. "I look forward to the day when I can do a small movie and act," Alba says, "and it's not about me wearing a fucking bathing suit or chaps."

Problem is, Alba isn't kooky. Kooky does not come with plum lips and amber skin and a beckoning grin. Alba, for better or worse, is a babe. More than that, she is a certain strain of babe -- the kind that invites rather than intimidates. She is a good girl, playing a bad girl. Her face is open and warm. She smiles often. She is fresh-scrubbed. She never struts, but ambles. She has normal-size breasts and no plans to enhance them. She points to pimples on her forehead and laughs. She eats -- a lot. In short, she is girlfriend material, and it is this accessibility, when married to her liquid body, that makes her walking kryptonite -- an effect in evidence whenever she exits the house and leaves a trail of double takes in her wake. Men on the street take note initially because she is pretty, but then, as she walks closer, it registers -- "Man, that's Jessica Alba!" -- and the admiration explodes into palpable desire.

"She doesn't even notice it," says her close friend and sometime personal trainer Ramona Braganza. "We went into Starbucks in Ohio, and all these guys were falling all over themselves and whispering. She had no idea."

Alba herself tells a charmingly naive story about how in L.A. she is never able to dine alone. “Everyone feels bad for you," she says. "For some reason, waiters, cooks, they all have to come out and talk to you: 'How's the food? Did someone not show up?' I'm like, 'No, I'm reading my book. I'm totally happy.' "

When it is suggested that perhaps these concerned gentlemen emerge specifically to see her, that surely not every gal eating solo gets the pity party, Alba shakes her head. "Men in Los Angeles get uncomfortable when a woman is by herself," she says. "Unless she's shopping." On any other actress, such an observation would smack of disingenuousness, but somehow Alba pulls it off. Maybe because she has been acting since she was twelve and has already in her short lifetime "had periods where I was in everybody's face and times when nobody knew who I was."
Alba has already been back and forth on the celebrity trip and has decided, ultimately, "fuck it." Now she ignores fame completely, staying in a bubble of her creation, a sunny, insular place where life is as deliciously sweet as she wills it to be. A place where men talk to her because they are kind, not horned up. A place where the future has nothing to do with her haircut or her high-riding buttocks.

"I don't need to be famous," she says adamantly. "I'm not that ambitious. At this point, if I'm not sucked in, I'm never going to get sucked in. Being the so-called hot girl, I disconnect from that. It's not that deep."

Alba grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs, the only daughter of Mark and Cathy Alba. Mark is “dark Mexican,” Cathy is French and Danish. The genetic mix has been kind to Alba, leaving her with an intriguing ethnic palate that netted her roles as everything from a part-Malaysian, in The Sleeping Dictionary- a film most famous for clearlu showing what fans prayed were Alba’s breasts (“They weren’t”) - to Anglo superhero Sue Storm in the upcoming Fantastic Four. The fanboys were up in arms about her being cast in the latter role, until a newly blond Alba appeared, eyes twinkling, onstage at a press event and melted their collective hearts.

Alba says her ethnic mélange, while photogenic, made for a challenging childhood. “I never really belonged anywhere,’ she says. “I wasn’t white. I was shunned by the Latin community for not being Latin enough. My Grandfather was the only one in our family to go to college. He made a choice not to speak Spanish in the house. He didn’t want his kids to be different.”

Alba is taking Spanish lessons now. “I have a great accent” she says,” because I grew up in the neighborhood. But I have no idea what I’m saying.” There were other struggles. Her parents met and married in their teens. By the time they were twenty and twenty-one, they had two kids, the second being Jessica’s brother, Joshua. “We all grew up together,” Alba says of her family. “My parents were so young. My dad hates when I talk about our past, about not having things, living with Grandma, wearing thrift-store clothes, cutting coupons.”

Alba’s parents held several jobs apiece. Nights her father was a cook in a rib joint. “He was terrible,” she says, ‘but you could see them working, and he would ham it up for the customers, so the kept him.” Her mother logged days at McDonalds and evenings tending bar. “At every place, she would make up a drink and name it after herself,” Alba says. When money got especially tight, Mark would drive the kids to Mexico and point out the shacks and the filthy water. “He wanted us to see that we had nothing to complain about,” she says.

Still, she craved more. “I was born with a wicked sense of entitlement,” she admits. “I always thought I was born into the wrong family, that I was fucking royalty and nobody knew it but me.”

Her attitude made school difficult. “From and very early age, I remember thinking that adults were always acting like assholes,” she says. “I couldn’t understand why I had to respect them. My preschool teacher forced me to write right handed when I was left handed. I didn’t get why I had to change. Nobody could give me a reason. I have had a big problem with authority ever since.”

“Since she was a baby, she’s always been a leader,” says Mark. “She’s really assertive. You know how hard it is to talk to adults and try and get a job when you’re a kid? She met James Cameron when she was seventeen and just said ‘I think I am the best person for the job’. She is unafraid of people in power.”

Alba was a clever and observant child. She noticed thing. Like how much her parents enjoyed cutting loose. They needed to break out of the box of their lives. She remembers being unable to sleep most nights, and how she would wander into the kitchen and see her parents partying or arguing, drama they tried to protect their kids from in the daylight hours. “I would stand there and listen” she says. “I would see stuff I shouldn’t.”

Today Alba considers her parents her best friends. She has no complaints about her upbringing. She gets that people do the best they can and that they were kids having kids and that now, maybe, they will finally have their time to shine. “I want them to move here” she says. “I want them to expand their minds a little, get them out of the suburbs.” Alba sighs. “I wasn’t given a whole lot in my life. I was on the bottom of the class system. But I got wisdom. I never just did what people told me. I questioned everything.

When I look back, it is really no surprise that I started working at twelve.” She broke into movies and TV with relative ease: within a year of her first audition she had a regular role on the series The New Adventures of Flipper. “She never had a childhood,” says Alba’s friend Braganza. “She had to be the adult in her family. She worked all the time. I remember with Dark Angel, she was supposed to be a bike messenger, and I had to teach her how to ride a bike. She had never learned.”

If Alba mourns her lost childhood, it doesn’t show. “I don’t like to waste time,” she says. Alba is all about tomorrow-who she will become and what that will mean. She wants to have kids, some hers, some adopted, with a husband or without. She wants to start a business. She wants to run a production company – “and not just so I can put myself in movies. So many people do that it’s pathetic.”

Alba has no patience for weakness, especially weakness born of ego, “you know, like some woman in her forties who dates a twenty year old so she can keep getting her picture in US Weekly.”

She prides herself on being professional, straightforward, levelheaded. Among her friends she is the advice giver, the dump-his-ass girl. She is older than her years, a girl who by circumstance and disposition grew up fast-less the wine chugging/wake up with a stranger type, more the review your contracts, eat your vegetables, organize your sock drawer type. Alba is consciously responsible, the sort of person you could trust to feed your cat, and nothing grates her nerves more than women who act like little girls because they can.

“I can’t stand that girl: the poor little girl you have to rescue, the crazy girl” she says. “It drives me up the fucking wall. It’s annoying. Stop.” She rolls her eyes. Drops her chin. “Most men love the crazy girl” she says “Oh save me! You’re such a big strong man. The more insecure the man the more likely he will love the crazy girl. And also, ninety percent of the time, men are about the physical. And most women who are hot are crazy. Because they don’t need to have it together.”

Jessica Alba drives her convertible BMW like a teenage boy. She is aggressive and distracted, prone to frequent braking and curb rubbing. There are many close calls, which she barely registers, or does but blames the victim. “Maybe I could be one of those car service people,” she says wistfully, cutting a wide corner. That would be dope.”

As she drives she talks animatedly about her man, whom she is on her way to meet at a fancy clothing store. “If I found someone messing with him, I would cut them. It’s not even a question of how much I would fuck them up. That’s the ghetto side of me.” Alba squeals into a Beverly Hills parking lot. A woman in head to toe studded denim teeters out on metallic heels. “That is my mom” Alba says with a soft smile “If she could dress that way everyday, she would.”

Alba parks and walks quickly toward Rodeo Drive. “I’m always a little late,” she says. “My parents were always so excited to be places that we would be early. I remember having to sit there and make conversation, like Uh, OK.” She finds the store and rushes inside, straight into the arms of her de facto fiancé, twenty six year old film assistant Cash Warren. The two kiss like the movie is ending, then reluctantly break apart. Warren, who looks like Lorenzo Lamas if Lorenzo Lamas had gone to Yale, met Alba while working on Fantastic Four. (He is listed as an assistant to the director, Tim Story: it’s Warren’s second credit after working as an assistant last year on the god-awful Queen Latifah flick Taxi.) Warren has spent the past six months doing everything in his power to persuade her to marry him. Today he is trying on various Dolce & Gabbana suits for industry appearances with Alba in Cannes. “Basically, I do whatever the girl wants,” he says squeezing his swarthy frame into skinny pants. Alba eyes the questionable ensemble.

“Try the jeans” Alba coos. “For me.”

“I must love you a whole lot,” Warren says as he disappears into the dressing room. A few minutes later he howls. “These cannot be mens jeans!”

Alba jumps up, laughing, and rushes to the dressing room, hopping into his arms and shutting the door behind her. There is some whispering and more laughing. After a bit, Alba emerges grinning. “If we fuck this thing up” she says, adjusting her baseball cap, “we’re idiots.”

“We are the boy and girl version of each other,” she says. “We have the same ideas about the future. If I met Cash and I was married to somebody else, I would have to get a divorce. We make that much sense together.” She picks up an oozing wedge of Camembert, holds it to her nose and inhales sharply. “I wasn’t sure I was going to meet anybody,” she says. “I thought I was going to be a single mom. And I was totally fine with that. But it is nice having somebody, not doing everything alone.” Alba puts down the cheese and exits the shop. Outside, two girls walk by arm in arm, squealing. Alba eyes them.

“I don’t make friends easily,” she says matter-of-factly. She goes on to explain that girls her age have a history of being jealous or weird or competitive around her, so unless another woman is sure of her game, Alba gets the steer clear vibe. Which is why most of her girlfriends are married with children. Back at her house in Beverly Hills, Alba lets her pugs, Sid and Nancy, out and changes into sweats. In her living room is a just delivered, massive twelve foot by twelve foot poster of her Sin City character pinned with a note from director Robert Rodriguez.

“Where am I going to put this?” She wonders, genuinely embarrassed. There is little evidence of Alba’s career anywhere in her home. No movie stills or glamour shots. Only family pictures, in simple frames and modest furniture. “Why pay $10,000 for a couch?” She asks. “That’s stupid.” She shows off her whirlpool tub and the plasma screen above it, “my big indulgence,” where she watches America’s Next Top Model as she bathes. A nearby bookshelf is full. Martin Amis. Elizabeth Wurtzel. Nigella Lawson.

“All of this was carpet,” she says, gesturing to the gleaming black wood floors. “And this, she says, pointing to her office, was a gym.” The house is understated and clean, with a masculine edge. The only two touches of girl are the photo collages stickered with words “vacation” and “birthday,” and the underwear drawer in her closet, which is ajar and reveals piles of lace and floral silk. When she sees the open drawer, she quickly pushes it shut.

“I used to come to Beverly Hills for auditions as a kid and think Why don’t I live here, Why don’t I drive that car?” As she talks Alba walks past her bed. On it rests a Playboy. “Let me explain,” she says, blushing. “My father called me the other day screaming about how I was in Playboy. I was terrified it was something humiliating, but it was only me in a paparazzi shot in a bikini straightening my towel.” She flips open to the page and stares at the photograph, taken from behind and featuring her bottom round and high in the air. She says nothing for a moment. Then throws the magazine down on the bed. “Whatever.”

“We can see you!” It is the day before she leaves for France, and Alba is giggling as she recounts the last time she went hiking and had to pee. She took refuge behind a wiry bush and let it rip just as an entire troop of Boy Scouts trudged past. “Their leader was mortified,” she says. “He kept yelling, you in the bush, we can see everything! But what am I going to do? Come out and introduce myself?” For an actor who has been working since childhood, Alba is remarkably forthcoming about the potentially embarrassing details of her life.

She lost her virginity at eighteen.
She is a control freak.
She is not the world’s best dancer. (“When I was filming Honey, the choreographer kept saying I was going to ruin her career.”)
She is bossy.
She hates to lose.
She thinks what is happening in Iraq is “all kinds of fucked up.”
She used to be a Bible thumper, praying to God to rid her of her wanton desires. (“It wasn’t hard to tell the truth”, she says. “I couldn’t imagine having sex with a teenager. I had been working for six years. I had responsibilities. Those boys wanted to hang and drink beer. That just wasn’t my shit.”)

Alba is at home, scouting the fridge which appears to be arranged by food category- for a bottle of water. Tomorrow before leaving town she will go to a meet and greet with DVD salesmen to promote Fantastic Four. She will turn up looking pretty, and if the past is any indication, be groped by soft men in golf shirts. “We pose for snapshots, and there are times when they put their hands on my ass or cupped my breast,” she says, sighing. “And I have to stand there and smile like nothing is happening.” Alba shrugs.

Braganza stops by, and Alba suggests they go to a Tae-Bo, a trendy workout class. “I have a photo shoot soon,” she says, pointing to her belly. Braganza demurs. They decide to walk instead. As they do, Alba reveals that last week she was unexpectedly and Violently Fench kissed by a chimp named Tia. Twice. Amazingly, this is not her lead anecdote. It rests a lazy third to stories about porn shopping in Cleveland (Brazilian Booties) and her aunt’s unfortunate home waxing accident. Still, the monkey story leaves Braganza appropriately mortified. “How in the world?” She asks.

“So I’m shooting a special for MTV,” says Alba, “and they told me all I had to do was push my lips out a little and the monkey would give me a peck, but instead she rammed her tongue inside my mouth and swept all around in a circle.” Here, Alba demonstrates, and the sight of her, lips parted, her index finger swirling around inside her mouth, triggers predictable stares and sighs from passerby. She is laughing too hard to notice. “She touched every inch in there! It was the most disgusting thing ever!”

“And they filmed it?” Asks Braganza.

“Oh, yeah, that will be a special moment.” The women keep walking, chatting about Hollywood, dogs and horrible kissers. The sun begins to set, turning L.A. a dusky blue. Alba pauses to admire the sky. She is thinking about the year ahead, wondering how things will evolve, if, in fact, she can break out, grow up and leave her sexy image behind.

“As a girl, I was always told I was nasty or dirty if I was sexual in any way,” she says quietly. “Americans are such prudes.” She starts walking again. “That’s why we’re all so perverted.” She smirks, then smiles big, her teeth gleaming in the twilight.

“Not me of course,” she says, “I’m an angel.”