This bushy-browed Hollywood progeny of producer Jack Schwartzman (Lion Heart, 007: Never Say Never Again) and actress Talia Shire is no stranger to the LA beat. On his latest Coconut Records album, he croons, “I miss you; I’m going back home to the west coast.” Home indeed. Nephew to Francis Ford Coppola, cousin of Nicolas Cage—Jason Schwartzman was practically bred for the multiplex. Fortunately, he chose not to stretch his creative muscle in the oily blood-and-guts melodramas of Cage and Coppola. Instead he wielded drumsticks for the rock band Phantom Planet and spent his formative teenage years championing a subtler, more sensitive brand of cinema a la Sofia Coppola and her inconspicuous brother, Roman (a serial Second Unit director, writer/director of the underappreciated CQ, and, um, uncredited Senate Guard in The Phantom Menace).
For the past decade, Jason Schwartzman’s M.O. has been offbeat, quirky, personal films. Kudos to Wes Anderson, who’s spent the last decade casting Schwartzman as his tenured darling. Schwartzman charms the screen as actor and co-writer of the acclaimed Darjeeling Limited as much as he did in his unforgettable breakout role as Max Fischer in Rushmore. The iconic high school dissident and melancholy lover turns twenty-eight years old today, June 26. On this, the eve of his premiere role as a television lead in Bored to Death (in which Schwartzman plays a writer-turned-private-eye alongside latent funnyman Zach Galifianakis) we take a retrospective look at one of his most unrecognized accomplishments—Hotel Chevalier—the short film prologue to the Darjeeling Limited.
A.O. Scott calls the thirteen-minute prolegomenon “an almost perfect distillation of Mr. Anderson’s vexing and intriguing talents, enigmatic, affecting and wry.” Without Schwartzman’s guileless melancholy, barefooted calm, and steadiness, Hotel Chevalier would be nothing more than an obsessive-compulsive exercise in symmetry. As vital to the jigsaw Andersonian mise-en-scène is the presence of the actor inhabiting the space. Gene Hackman hits the target in The Royal Tenenbaums with his comedic gloom. Bill Murray does the same in The Life Aquatic. Schwartzman masters the look in Hotel Chevalier. It’s not ambiguous so much as it is withholding. It forces the viewer to wait and guess at his inner turmoil. The way Schwartzman wears his face reminds one of Kuleshov’s famous experiment. In the 1920s, Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov photographed “a close-up shot of an actor with a neutral expression on his face; when the same footage of the actor’s face was edited with shots of a bowl of soup, or a dead body, or a baby…ordinary filmgoers praised the actor’s performance, believing that his face had registered an appropriate response to what they had just seen.” Some think this is the result of psychology. Take Alfred Hitchcock, for instance. Inferring from Kuleshov’s experiment that actors are nearly inconsequential to a film so long as the montage is effective, Hitchcock treated his actors with notable contempt. In 1938, he made the infamous observation, “Actors are cattle.” No one knows whether the Kuleshov phenomenon is a result of camera trickery or talent, but a sober, committed actor like Schwartzman gets the benefit of the doubt.
In Hotel Chevalier, Schwartzman plays Jack Whitman, a reclusive expatriate who has been hiding in one of the ritziest hotel rooms in Paris for more than a month after a messy breakup with his girlfriend—the beautiful but jejune Natalie Portman. She shoves a fat toothbrush in her mouth as he waits patiently at the door and answers her banal questions. “What the fuck is going on?” she inquires. He doesn’t answer. Later, they make hurried love, and as he undresses her, garment by garment, each fallen article reveals a dark blotch on her skin. “You’ve got bruises on your body,” Jack remarks. She hesitates for an instant before shutting his mouth with kisses.
In a way, this moment communicates one of Schwartzman’s most finely tuned sensibilities. He has a pitch-perfect temper. Two butterflies stand pinned to a white taxidermy card at the desk. Isolated, beautiful, nostalgic, dead—that is their tone. It’s Schwartzman’s as well. The unfinished painting by the mirror—he eyes it with neither pride nor disgust. Schwartzman delivers his lines from the same frequency of his environment. He asks not who made the bruises or how they got there, he only brings them to light—freezes the moment before us spectators. He becomes one with the room—observant and quiet. He shows no feelings—yet the viewer feels compelled with emotion. Effectively, Schwartzman gets out of the way of the film. He removes himself from the role. Cezanne writes that the artist must discard “interpretive bias even of vague emotional memories, prejudices, and predilections transmitted as part of one’s heritage.” A blank slate. In a way, one must discard oneself. That is the sign of a true artist. Jason Schwartzman is well on his way.
Jason Harper is the film editor for Wunderkammer.