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The Reeler Blog

Halle Berry, Lost in the Fire

By S.T. VanAirsdale

It seems like only yesterday that the work of Danish director Susanne Bier required the doubling of our psychotherapy budget at Reeler HQ. A few years removed from the bleak family-scapes of Open Hearts and Brothers, her 2006 melodrama After the Wedding arrived in New York last spring with the muggy, windy force of a hurricane. Evacuations (and dashed Oscar aspirations) naturally followed, and no sooner had wary moviegoers returned to the scene of the crime than Bier struck again -- this time with Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro and about $15 million of DreamWorks' money.

Lost in translation: Benicio Del Toro and Halle Berry in Susanne Bier's Things We Lost in the Fire (Photo: Doane Gregory)

But while Things We Lost in the Fire, Bier's English-language debut, retains the same fetishized gravity ("CUT TO: 183rd extreme close-up of a cheekbone," demands the shooting script) and bourgeois emo-porn that her audiences have come to know and tolerate, its emotional flashpoints feel more authentic. Not necessarily the part where Berry's wealthy homebuilder husband (David Duchovny) gets shot to death, sending his widow into a denial fit that results in his junkie best friend (Del Toro) moving into their exurban Seattle enclave. Or the part featuring Alison Lohman as the cutest addict since Jennifer Connelly in Requiem For a Dream, modestly courting Del Toro through recovery, relapse and the requisite dinner-table catharsis. Rather, it's the wavering chemistry between Berry and her co-star, all coiled class war, messiah complex and sexual frustration. It's hard for me to believe, but parts of this film actually work.

"Susanna was telling someone in an interview yesterday that she cast us both because she thought we had this sexual [chemistry]," Berry told the audience Tuesday at a Museum of the Moving Image preview of Things We Lost. "What I think it was, really, was just a healthy respect for him. ... It got a little hairy in the movie. The scene where we almost kissed was never really written. One day, Susanne said, 'I think you should try to kiss her right now.' And of course we both [recoiled] and said, 'No, that would be terrible! We can't do that!' She said, 'No I just want you to come in and start the scene with the intention of sexual tension toward each other.' It wasn't blocked out; it wasn't talked about. We just said, 'OK. Stay in your character and we'll see what happens.' And that's sort of what happened. And then we realized that somehow we had to deal with the tension that was happening on film. We needed that scene, but we needed to stop it and not go there."

The brooding, bug-eyed Del Toro proves again that he could snack on pretty much any of his castmates and skip craft services altogether, but Berry manages a consistent, suitably challenging passive-aggression -- despite Bier's cut-away compulsion that historically erodes so many of her leads. Follow the jump for more of the actress's insights and observations and from the set.

ON HER FAMILIARITY WITH BIER'S WORK: "I was aware of Susanne Bier and her films, especially Brothers and Open Hearts. I'd seen those right before I met with her. What I really love is that she's got this unique ability to make you feel like you're a fly on the wall -- that you're really just watching life happen. And it's the way she uses her camera; it's the Dogme movement and Danish filmmaking. She brought all of that to this piece, and I hoped that she would.

"But you know, sometimes you just read something and you just intuitively connect to the characters and the story, and I did that. I knew there was something about this woman that I related to, and I thought that it was a message and a story that right now, with all that’s going on, I think it's nice to be part of a movie that reminds us no matter how bad life gets, no matter what hand fate deals us, there's always hope."

ON WORKING WITHIN BIER'S SHOOTING STYLE: "It was interesting because in this movie, our DP lit the set 360 degrees. I'd never been in a movie where we'd had that happen. So that meant that any moment, anybody could move anywhere they wanted to move. There were no marks that we had to hit. We didn't have to look a certain way; we were pretty free to be natural. I think that helped the movie along, too. Of course, when the scene is completely lit, the camera can be on anybody. When I was told, 'OK, this is going to be a close-up on Benicio,' halfway through, the camera would just go... [Swoops palms from left to right] Then it would be on me. It was hard; as an actor, you never sleep through a scene, but we really needed to be on 100 percent of the time."

ON WINNING HER ROLE: "It wasn't one of those roles where I had to go fighting and kicking and screaming for it or anything. There are so few good roles written for women every year, and there are many actresses who covet those roles. So I had to throw my hat in the ring because it wasn't written for a woman of color, and oftentimes, when the description doesn't say "a black woman," I'm not thought of. So I have to make sure people who I'm interested in think I can do this as well. I needed to do that more than I usually do for this movie."

ON WORKING WITH A WOMAN DIRECTOR: "It was a little different working with a woman. Good filmmaking isn't gender specific; a talented director is a talented director. But as a woman, it did make a difference for me because women have a shorthand; women can speak sometimes in ways that men and women cannot. Especially in this case, playing a woman who lost her husband. Neither of us had had this loss, but we imagined it the same way, so we've had a lot of unspoken conversations throughout making the move. I've never had that experience before."

ON PREPARING FOR HER ROLE AS A GRIEVING WIFE: "I started off reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking -- which helped me tremendously. I've never lost anybody near and dear to me; only pets, you know? I really had no genuine basis to start from, only my own imagination of what that would be like."

Posted at October 11, 2007 3:36 PM

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