Changing the Garde: A New Breed of Star Showed Us That Big-Name Actors Could Be Experimental Too, Writes Ryan Gilbey

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Remove from film history the nobly suffering female face in close-up and there would be some yawning gaps where great cinema used to be. We're talking farewell to Carl Dreyer, cheerio Ingmar Bergman, TTFN John Cassavetes. And in any assessment of screen acting from the past ten years, it is still the women on the verge, or in the throes, of a nervous breakdown who dominate.


Think of Julianne Moore as the 1950s housewife in Far from Heaven (2002), excommunicated from the coffee-morning elite after fraternising with her African-American gardener. Or Dina Korzun, a Hanna Schygulla for our time, torn between her shambolic husband and his resentful son in Forty Shades of Blue (2005). There was Lorraine Stanley, bruised but unbeatable, in London to Brighton (2006); Charlotte Gainsbourg bared her heart in I'm Not There (2007), a couple of years before baring her body in Antichrist. Melissa Leo, as a dirt-poor, nicotine-stained people-smuggler in Frozen River (2008), looked like death warmed up then left out overnight to go cold again. And please don't forget Nina Hoss falling apart in the corporate purgatory of Yella (2007), a movie that shares with Laurent Can-tet's extraordinary L'emploi du temps (2001) the award for Most Far-Sighted Film of the Decade.

Tormented women were at the core of two of the pictures I mostadmired. Francois Ozon's Under the Sand starred Charlotte Rampling as a woman rebutting all evidence that her husband, who had vanished after wading into the sea, was dead. No less an authority than Bergman considered the film a masterpiece. Nicole Kidman explored the same close proximity between glacial conviction and devastating frailty in Jonathan Glazer's Birth, in which she played an Upper East Side widow confronted by a ten-year-old scamp claiming to be the reincarnation of her husband.

Both Under the Sand and Birth end on a beach with the camera maintaining a vigil as a bereft woman heads towards a future in which nothing, other than dependence on mood-stabilising medication, is certain. Something else connects these films: the pressure on their lead actors to carry in their faces information that can't be articulated in any other form. So, an actor expresses character through performance--big deal, right? But when Kidman, scrutinised by the camera at a Wagner concert, signals in her eyes an emotional breakthrough that is entirely interior, we are witnessing in practice Robert Altman's theory that actors can be auteurs, too--that they can provide an authorial presence in a movie as persuasively as any director.

The notion goes beyond acting: it can also be about how the performances shape our perception of the actor's body of work. Under the Sand at once refreshed and interrogated Rampling's arctic persona: it was a comeback movie of sorts. …