Naked Girls!: Carey Mulligan in “Shame”, Kirsten Dunst in “Melancholia,” and Kristen Stewart in “Twilight”
Mulligan took one contemporary route to shift her image: She stripped. But how brave is Mulligan’s performance in Shame — does her character make any more sense literally stripped bare? And I ask that knowing that I’d wear a wetsuit in a communal hot tub.
I brought up the issue with some friends, all women who, like me, write about movies, including Susan Wloszczyna of USA Today. “What flashed in my mind was Julianne Moore standing there pantsless for several minutes in Short Cuts,” said Wloszczyna. “It was very specific nudity that got people talking. And it was not so much a turn-on as a statement that maybe got her taken more seriously because it somehow seemed brave.”
“I think it comes down to the part,” concluded Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone, “and the confidence of the actress.” Female filmmaker Jordan Bayne (The Sea Is All I Know) agreed, and took it one step further: “Does it serve the story, or is it gratuitous?”
In Shame, Mulligan’s bruised survivor, Sissy, doesn’t so much make an entrance as get surprised in the shower, breasts bare, blond hair soaked to reveal dark roots and, down below, darkish pubic hair. It’s quite a reveal, even if it is anticlimactic after all the preceding full-frontal shots of Michael Fassbender as Sissy’s sexaholic brother.
“Poor Carey standing in the shower like a bottle-blond rat,” said Wloszczyna. “She just seemed miscast in an impossible role.”
Recently, in Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst strips as Justine — but she’s at her very sexiest, dressed in a voluminous, strapless gown in the extended wedding that dominates the movie’s first half. Later, when she undresses, it’s actually less sexy. After the wedding, Justine’s depressed to the point of inertia and her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tries to help her into a bathtub. Justine literally lacks the will to raise her leg and climb in. Here, her nakedness reveals her vulnerability: Her mind and body have split.
Is Dunst’s body hot? Yes. But Justine is so dissociative, she’s no longer desirable.
In the swoony The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1, Kristen Stewart dons a sexy body-hugging wedding dress. And, true to the PG-13 rating, even a romantic skinny-dipping scene between Bella and her groom, Edward (Robert Pattinson), has her wearing a towel to the water’s edge, then revealing an expanse of back and a slice of side boob. The film’s honeymoon modesty becomes a tease that recalls Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau visiting a nudist colony in A Shot in the Dark. A full breast or a nipple is never visible, and yet the audience gets the idea and can make the leap themselves, thankyouverymuch.
Revealing nudity, or concealing it, works best if it’s integral to the story. Nothing seems faker than a moment of soft-lit Playboy nudity in an otherwise gritty, realistic movie. Nakedness should peel back pretense, not encourage it. And it shouldn’t throw the audience, gaping, out of the narrative. That’s the case for both Dunst and Stewart in their respective films, but not for Mulligan. In Shame, the nudity seems to muddy her reputation — we don’t see her as a better actress, but we do see a lot more of her than we’ve seen before. In the past, what I’ve appreciated about her performances is her intelligence; she’s a thinking woman’s Oxbridge blonde. So she hasn’t built on her brand for Shame.
Brave? Not so much. Does Mulligan nude stop virtual traffic? Yes!