The Black Dahlia 15 CERT, 121 MINS My relationship with Scarlett Johansson has had some ups and downs over the past few years. I first fell in love with her in the, autumn of 2003, when she starred in Lost in Translation. I was newly installed in a foreign city, feeling a little lost in translation myself, and this angel appeared like a revelation – so gentle and down-to-earth, so clever, so sophisticated.
Eighteen months later, back in London trying to play "I'm so cool" at the Grouchy Club, I actually met her. There she was, the angel, sitting next to me – but oh how changed. The mousy hair had been swapped for platinum blond, stretched into a tight bun: the natural lips had become high gloss; inhaling deeply on a cigarette she told me in a husky growl how working with Woody Allen was just "divine".
I was dumbstruck and horrified. Why must the reality so cruelly let down the dream? Who does she think she is, some 1940s sexpot movie star, acting the bar scene in some never-ending smoky thriller? I wanted the sweet, cosy Scarlett I fell in love with.
This week saw the release of Brian De Palma's new movie, The Black Dahlia, and now finally the new Scarlett made sense. It is the 1940s smoky thriller she has obviously been dreaming about; just as she had decided how a cool movie star should be, Brian De Palma has decided how a cool movie should be, and he
makes them again and again. Brian De Palma likes gangsters – not spotty modern ones but grand, aesthetic gangsters who bury their faces in mountains of cocaine (Scarface) and own nightclubs (Carlito's Way). He loves violence and has a soft spot for doppelgangers and femmes fatales.
It is not surprising that he was attracted to the true story of the gruesome murder of Elizabeth Short in 1940s Los Angeles, as told in James Ellroy's novel, The Black Dahlia. Two detectives, Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), are caught in a love triangle with the mysteriously glamorous Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). As Bucky investigates the murder of Miss Short, he also gets involved with rich sociopath Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), and gradually discovers an underworld of corruption, pornogra phy and criminality that takes in almost everyone he knows.
The film is very violent, and very lovely to look at – you may well find the combination offensive – with plenty of blood splattered against lace curtains and teeth bashed out in slow motion from previously attractive mouths.
And yet the reason it is not too harrowing is because it is incredibly stylised. It is essentially pastiche, complete with 1940s colouring, wonderful 1940s costumes that look improbably theatrical and a gruff narration by Rocky. It is all so ridiculously over the top that it becomes quite good fun and, yes, cool.
Some of the actors carry off the style better than others. Where Aaron Eckhart as Bucky's alpha male partner and Hilary Swank as Bucky's sex-maniac villain girlfriend are utterly compelling to watch, Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson both seem rather too young, rather borrowed-daddy's-coat-for-the-schoolplay. There are some excellent cameos – Mia Kirshner as the murder victim Elizabeth Short, revealed through video clips of her failed auditions, is an eerily insecure and sad figure; Fiona Shaw's funny face and hilarious overacting (remember the saucy headmistress in Three Men and a Little Lady?) fits in perfectly.
My complaint is that, as so often, "cool" without substance is just a posture. There is a love affair here, which burns like a bright candle in an otherwise dark world, but it was not enough for me. The world presented is truly horrific and the director enjoys it a bit too much. I went through waves of smiling and enjoying the film's sumptuousness, followed by nausea and panic as it hit yet lower depths of shiny depravity.
Scarlett, if you are reading, I have forgiven you for being so much cooler in real life than your character in Lost in Translation; I am pleased that in The Black Dahlia you found the perfect vehicle for your 1940s femme fatale style; yet, with your permission (sniff), I will continue to prefer a more tender story and less cool style of heroine.