It's about 30 minutes before Sleuth debuts at the 2007 Venice Film Festival. After too many drinks, I find myself downstairs in the theater's bathroom, in front of a urinal, unzipping my trousers to relieve myself when who should walk in but Michael Caine.
Talk about stage fright. This is Sir Michael Fu**ing Caine. He's that intimidating.
Sleuth, co-starring Caine and the ubiquitous Jude Law (directed by Kenneth Branagh), was not nearly as notable as my bathroom encounter with the legendary star of such movies as Get Carter, Harry Brown and the reboot of the Batman franchise. In fact, the films screening at Venice, including Joe Wright's Atonement, which opened the world's oldest international film festival, were underwhelming.
The most interesting (and strange) movie showing at that year's festival was Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, the Bob Dylan ramble that was as enigmatic as Dylan himself.
Oscar-winner Haynes' film examines different incarnations of Dylan's personality from the eleven-year-old Marcus Carl Franklin who portrays the Woody Guthrie Dylan to Cate Blanchett whose looks mirror a Blonde on Blonde Dylan constantly hounded by the press. Six actors inhabit Dylan during six influential moments throughout the singer/songwriter's illustrious career, including Heath Ledger in what I believe to be the late actor's most overlooked performance.
While Blanchett shined as the mercurial Dylan, it was Ledger that served as the fulcrum of the bizarre, stream of consciousness film.
To be clear, I'm Not There was deeply flawed. Upon first viewing, I was, like most of the audience heard shuffling uncomfortably in their seats during the film, confused. "An incoherent, obscure art-film with kick-ass Dylan music" was my first impression.
However, after the festival closed, and stars like Blanchett and Ledger boated away from the island of Lido, I found myself unable to stop thinking about Ledger's turn as a lonely actor who failed miserably at marriage and desperately missed the family he destroyed by his womanizing, drinking and self-absorbed disposition.
Upon watching I'm Not There a second time, I remembered what Forest Whitaker said to me during production of A Little Trip to Heaven, a film I co-wrote with Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur. It was the last night of shooting. I was loitering on set to interview Whitaker, Jeremy Renner and Julia Stiles for the DVD when I found Whitaker in his trailer, taking a break. He was tired, and in a reflective mood.
"A film is like a dream," he told me.
Whitaker's words floated around my head as I rewound I'm Not There in my mind. Like Dylan's most influential and unforgettable songs, Haynes' film takes place in that state where one is not really awake, but neither fully asleep.
The film is what the dreamer scribbles down on a scrap of paper upon waking up in order not to forget a profound idea. The next morning you read the paper and what seemed brilliant at 3:00 a.m. turns out to be part epiphany and part hogwash.
Ledger is the epiphany. Unfortunately, portions of I'm Not There are aloof and make very little sense.
"I don't know that it does make sense," Blanchett told the New York Times when talking about I'm Not There, "and I don't know whether Dylan's music makes sense... "
Ledger's embodiment of Dylan makes sense. In I'm Not There, Ledger portrays Robbie, an actor afflicted by severe melancholy and a massive ego. Playing off the excellent Charlotte Gainsbourg, whom his character marries, has children with and later divorces, Ledger occupies Dylan's dark, brooding Blood on the Tracks period. Dylan-ologists have long insisted Dylan's 15th studio album recounts the singer's divorce from Sara Dylan.
Ledger's Robbie travels through the arc of this doomed relationship from that first spark of meeting someone new to the adrenaline pumping through the veins upon discovering you're in love to the anguish endured when the relationship ultimately dies.
Or in Dylan terms, "A Simple Twist of Fate" to "Idiot Wind" to "If You See Her Say Hello."
Plenty of movies cover this plot: Boy Meets Girl. Boy Loses Girl. Boy Tries to Get Girl Back. While I'm Not There has numerous plot threads spinning every which way, Ledger takes his particular story line one step further by letting his darkest emotions creep into his gut to explore what's left after love degrades.
The film's most intimate scenes are when Ledger slouches through the residue of lost love. After a cinematic relationship ends, most movies with Hollywood-endings depict the hero winning back his or her lover, or, at least, promote a sentimental, romantic understanding of love (better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all).
In I'm Not There, Ledger doesn't find renewal through suffering or experience some greater truth. Instead, he loiters in his relationship's ashes accepting that the sorrow cutting him is just a consequence of existence.
In the film's most debilitating scene, Gainsbourg's Claire has finally had enough of Robbie. Separated, she's started to rebuild her life when she visits to ask him for a divorce, arriving to see him lost in the despair of old photographs.
The former lovers sit opposite one another, separated by a coffee table. There is no long speech. Just a quick exchange of harsh words and one final hug between two characters who, having suffered through so much hatred and love for one another, are too numb to feel anything else.
This is the film's most depressing yet hopeful scene. As he embraces his former lover, Ledger's grace and humanity are fully evident but without pathos. Through understated expressions and the slump of his posture as he sits slack the actor makes us believe, against all evidence, that everything is going to be okay, while simultaneously convincing us these two characters will never have the energy to ever fall in love again.
Some fans of Ledger believe the dark characters the actor portrayed in his final years took a dreadful toll on his life. I don't care to postulate on the actor's mental health. I never met him, although I did see him at Venice, dressed in shorts and a pair of hiking boots I remember to have been unlaced. He was outside Lido's main movie theater.
I wish the close proximity to him meant that somehow I understood him. It doesn't, of course, and like everyone else, I only knew him, and now see him, through the characters he embodied on screen.
I ignore the paparazzi speculation about how he devolved into such a vulnerable state that a mixture of prescription pills was strong enough to take his life. Instead, I remember the performances that endeared him to fans and critics.
Most critics focus on his maniacal Joker, which earned Ledger a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. And there is Ennis Del Mar from Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain. When speaking to the Guardian newspaper about his approach to playing the soft spoken, gay cowboy, Ledger said, "I wanted the light to be too bright for him and the world to be too loud."
There are many similarities between Ledger's Ennis and Robbie. Both are quite, reserved, stoic, their emotions lying too deep for words, too deep for tears.
Ennis, though, is an easier character to play. He's sympathetic because his problem is universal. He loves someone he can't have. We've all at one point in our lives suffered this fate.
Ledger's Robbie is an asshole. He's selfish, arrogant and, at times, misogynistic. Yet Ledger's nuanced and sublime performance in I'm Not There brings out Robbie's vulnerabilities, and even when his eyes are hidden behind dark sunglasses, Ledger constructs a character so refined the audience can't help but feel his alienation, anger and anguish.
Robbie seems more akin to Ledger: existing somewhere in that place where we are not awake, but not yet asleep -- a character too loud and bright for the world.