Friday, June 28, 2013

Emma Watson in The Bling Ring: Acting as 3-D printing

Posted By on 06.28.13 at 02:30 PM

Emma Watson as Alexis Neiers
  • Emma Watson as Alexis Neiers
The Internet Movie Database informs us that Emma Watson prepared for her role in The Bling Ring—as real-life criminal turned reality TV star Alexis Neiers—by studying Neiers's body language as exhibited on her TV show. You get a sense of her process in the on-screen results. Watson's performance is a series of precise, concentrated gestures, which is never undermined by the sort of self-consciousness actors tend to exhibit when playing real people who are still alive. The movie's version of Neiers is, of course, extremely self-conscious—you can see that in the still to the left. Observe the regal smirk on Watson's face, the way she hides one eye behind her bangs and steers the other to the side, so as to avoid making direct eye contact with anyone. Watson's impersonation, one of refined superficiality, conveys that Neiers looks at the world from behind a mask.

I was fascinated by what Watson achieved. The legacy of Method acting has conditioned us to assume that realistic performances are the result of an inside-out process. The performer identifies with the character on an emotional level, then draws on his or her own feelings to bring authenticity to the character's behavior. Taking the opposite approach, Watson arrives at a different kind of authenticity. She seems to have compiled a sizable databank of Neiers's gestures, then drawn on exactly the right one as each shot demanded. It's comparable to how 3-D printers work.

I'm not sure if this approach would be as effective if Watson were playing a less superficial character. That is to say, her calculated posturing feels like a plausible approximation of how Neiers herself goes through life. (I wonder if Watson had first tried to commune with the character on a deeper level and hit a dead end.) That's an unpleasant thing to think about; to paraphrase Pauline Kael's assessment of Antonioni's L'Avventura, the movie depicts a spiritual poverty as dire as the actual poverty of something like La Terra Trema. Precise but purposely devoid of empathy, Watson's performance has rightly been praised as The Bling Ring's most valuable asset.

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