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Reclaiming Beauty 

An interview with Blue Car’s Karen Moncrieff and Agnes Bruckner

Thursday, May 1 2003
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

Writer-director Karen Moncrieff is thinking about all the bad movies that led her to write Blue Car. “I’d just seen a spate of movies that seemed to sugarcoat the coming-of-age experience, or were told from a male perspective — even the ones that purported to be about a young woman’s experience. Like I remember watching Stealing Beauty and just going, okay, these long, lingering shots of Liv Tyler’s ass . . . I mean, she’s got a great ass, but that’s a guy’s perspective. And this is really not what it was like in my experience.”

In a way, Moncrieff should thank Bertolucci et al., whose self-serving versions of girlhood pissed her off enough to do something different: to take all the confusing awfulness and wonder of adolescence — as she saw it — and put it on a screen. In the process, Blue Car shows up the artifice of most teen-girl-related movies, even the good ones. Unlike White Oleander, Ghost World and American Beauty, say, Blue Car has absolutely no interest in stoking the male libido, or even in celebrating young actress Agnes Bruckner’s beauty for its own sake.

“One of the things I hate about Hollywood movies is that everyone looks like Plasticine, all slick and glossy,” Moncrieff says, sitting on a couch in a hotel room next to Bruckner, the flesh-and-blood 18-year-old who plays Meg, the young poet at the center of Blue Car. “Human beings don’t look like that. I have a zit on my chin, I have pores. I don’t want to see masks. Onscreen, you can see Agnes blush. You can see when the blood’s filling her face. That’s what I want.”

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Bruckner amplifies: “I tried to get some makeup by her once, and she was like, ‘No, take it off. This isn’t going to work.’”

It’s funny to meet Bruckner at 18, two years after wrapping Blue Car: She’s a full-grown woman now, with a slightly larger-than-life charisma that’s only hinted at in the film. (She has a bunch of tattoos, including one on her arm that spells out “Crazy Beautiful.” “It’s crazy to be beautiful,” she explains, “and it’s beautiful to be crazy.”) Bruckner is stunning all right, but more than that, she has energy: athletic, summery, real-girl energy, as well as a genuine movie-star aura. It seems not a question of if, but when, she’ll explode into the mainstream, and you only hope that when that happens, she’ll be able to retain her no-bullshit candor. She hopes so, too.

“In interviews, on the set, talking to people, I’ll just start talking about my parents’ divorce, and go on and on. My mom’s always like, ‘You don’t have to be that honest. You have to be more fake.’ You see some of these actors, they have a permanent smile on their face. How can they do that? It really fascinates me.”

Bruckner’s approach to acting, apparently, is to expose as much of herself as possible — without falling apart. She started shooting Blue Car just a few months after her own parents divorced. “It was definitely therapy for me, because I got to let those emotions go that I didn’t let go when it happened,” Bruckner says. “I was like, okay, I’ll use this, and it’s a movie, so I can do it without people being like, ‘Why are you crying all the time?’”

There were times, she says, that she went too far: “I remember, shooting the poetry-contest scene, I got really carried away and I couldn’t stop crying. I ran off the stage and ran backstage, and Karen came and helped me breathe. I just couldn’t stop crying.”

Another difficult moment was the sex scene — anti-erotic, nudity-free — that was one of the last they shot. “Some sex scenes turn people on, but the one between Meg and Mr. Auster [David Strathairn] is really uncomfortable. It makes you close your eyes when you’re watching it,” Bruckner says. “That’s so much more real as far as what they’re going through.”

Moncrieff doesn’t much care for sex scenes in general: “Usually it’s a departure from the story. But I hope in this movie their relationship continues to evolve during that scene. It all plays out on Meg’s face, and it’s fucking heartbreaking.” Bruckner cuts in: “It’s so much more moving, seeing the emotions run across my face. It’s so much more powerful than if you just go down and see the boobs.”

“It’s not about the boobs!” says Moncrieff. “Boobs aren’t very expressive, really. Maybe yours are, I don’t know. Plus, in all the shitty B movies I did as an actress, I had directors say to me — and this is no bullshit — ‘I know you have no nudity in your contract, but for this scene we’re going to be really, really far back, and it’s going to be really dark, and we just need to see the two of you intertwined. You won’t see anything, I swear to God.’ And, of course, at that point I hadn’t gone to film school, so I didn’t know what lens they had on the camera. And when I see the movie, there’s my ass this big in the center of the screen!

“Between that and the way people treated me on the set, I felt so betrayed that the last thing in the world I ever wanted to do to Agnes, who’s just this huge emerging talent, was to crush any of that — make her feel used, or like she was offering up her guts to this part and we were going to take advantage of it in some way.”

The scene is certainly a world away from Adrian Lyne’s Lolita, which eroticized the awkwardness of its central relationship. Moncrieff doesn’t much remember that film, she says, and while she appreciates Nabokov’s novel as literature, she rejects any real comparisons, since Lolita, in essence, was not about Lolita.

Lolita is very much from Humbert Humbert’s viewpoint,” Moncrieff says. “He goes on and on, objectifying Lolita in the most beautiful language ever committed to the page. But I tried really, really hard to make this Meg’s story and Meg’s experience, through her eyes.”

“I just got asked this Lolita question too,” Bruckner says. “But I don’t think Meg is like Lolita in any way; I don’t think she’s in any way sexual like that . . .”

“Obviously, Agnes doesn’t quite know her effect on people!” Moncrieff says, laughing.

If there is any romantic image-making in the film, it’s in the way Meg takes on the traditionally male archetype of the outsider — the young artist running away from home, jumping on a Greyhound, sleeping on a beach, shoplifting just to get by.

“I never thought about that,” says Moncrieff, “but it’s true. I am always attracted to the loner, the still-waters-run-deep kind of thing, the person at the back of the class who’s not saying too much, but she’s drawing. I suppose it was fun to imagine an inner life for that kind of character.”

In doing so, and in constructing a visual environment to reflect that inner life, Moncrieff builds a slightly anonymous version of reality: Meg seems to live in Anytown, USA, attending Anyschool. Here, there are no name-brand sneakers, no MTV, no rock posters. There aren’t even that many teenagers. (Meg has one girlfriend, but spends most of her time at home doing schoolwork.) It’s a bleak, chiaroscuro world that evokes the kind of loneliness only a child of divorce really understands.

In that sense — and in that sense alone — Blue Car is highly autobiographical. The genesis of the script, says Moncrieff, “was in a class where I started writing about the time right after my own parents were divorced. I remember being in this apartment, and my mom crying, sitting on the floor, and me and my sister sort of holding hands around her. Suddenly everything had changed. Suddenly this intact world that I had taken for granted shifted completely, and I remember this deep feeling of loneliness and alienation.

“Still, in terms of plot points, it’s not autobiographical. Although I do know what it’s like to aspire to be an artist, and I have had complex and difficult relationships with father figures in my life, Blue Car does not really resemble my life.” She pauses for a moment, searching for the right words.

“But it does resemble my heart.”

Reach the writer at ksullivan@laweekly.com

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