Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Filmmaker Lodge Kerrigan has made interesting movies about desperate people on the edge, Clean, Shaven (1994) and Keane (2004), which was co-produced by Steven Soderbergh. This 1998 film is a tough story about a call girl who struggles to survive in a horribly oppressive situation. Kerrigan's cold camera style places her in a constant state of unease -- she has to be incredibly strong just to retain her sanity.
Undocumented Irish immigrant Claire Dolan (Katrin Cartlidge) is forced to work as an on-call prostitute by her manipulative pimp Roland Cain (Colm Meany) to pay off steep medical bills for her mother (Muriel Maida). When her mother passes away, Claire skips out from Manhattan to New Jersey. The relentless Cain uses underworld connections to track her down and put her to work again. Claire tries unsuccessfully to hide her profession from a new taxi driver boyfriend, Elton Garrett (Vincent D'Onofrio).
Claire Dolan may be an unpleasant movie to watch but it carries a message that's more than worthwhile. Prostitution has been thoroughly mythologized into something glamorous, perhaps even positive, for some people. Fantasies like 1990's Pretty Woman front the malicious idea that women who sell their bodies for money are somehow liberted and empowered, when in real life something desperate and personally tragic is usually the reason. Behaving like a tramp and really prostituting one's self are two different things, and our culture's image of the call-girl as a free-spirited sex object has a negative effect on both men and women.
Claire is struggling through an existence that would stagger most people. She has to have sex with dozens of men weekly, feigning interest in their fantasies and taking constant physical and mental abuse. There is no such thing as an honest relationship or a sincere transaction in her life. Her pimp Roland is a manipulative mid-range mob functionary who pretends to be her friend while holding her in a figurative arm-lock. The usually in-control Claire cannot hide her vulnerability at their meetings, where he talks in polite niceties that hide a monstrous capacity for cruelty. Roland supposedly only has the use of Claire's services until she pays back her debt, but Roland repeatedly assures her that their relationship will go on forever, as if he now owns her soul.
Most of the men Claire has to have degrading sex with are upstanding businessmen. They behave like demanding animals, using her body as a rich man's playground. Claire's fees are high, and Roland gets most of the money. Sometimes the client appears to be a friend or a business contact being given a favor. Claire's body is used like money, passed from one man to another. And through all of it she has to put up a convincing act of desire and sexual interest, or the client will feel cheated.
The movie progresses in brief scenes, fully a third of which are repetitive sexual encounters. Although the worst of these rates only a 'hard-R,' the cumulative effect is graphically realistic. One client appears to be videotaping his encounter while another has Roland watch from a glassed-off balcony. But Claire's most traumatic experience is with a John that approaches her with a compelling speech claiming that he's a man who has suffered, and that he sympathizes with her plight. He waits until she shows signs of responding before grabbing her roughly -- revealing that his concern was an act intended to break her down and put her off guard.
The most pressing reason to see Claire Dolan is to witness the near-amazing performance of Katrin Cartlidge. She was arresting as the whining, self-destructive loser Sophie in Mike Leigh's 1993 Naked but this is a much more difficult part. Claire Dolan is a tough customer -- at one point she cooly talks two men out of raping her -- but we also see the constant fear in her eyes, the vulnerability she has to suppress. Her relationship with her pimp Roland (Colm Meany of the Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine syndicated series) is not unlike Anjelica Huston's with Pat Hingle in Stephen Frears' The Grifters: Behind every 'friendly' hello is an implied threat of death.
Vincent D'Onofrio is quite good as Claire's lover, a man who for at least a short time considers her as a possible permanent relationship. One aspect of Claire Dolan that doesn't add up is the reality of Sexually Transmitted Diseases - it never comes to the fore, even as a subject. Claire considers part of her 'salvation plan' to be having a baby like her sister. But whose baby is it? Are we to believe that Claire is allowing herself to become pregnant by one of her clients -- at random?
Claire Dolan tackles a story that might have been perfect material for the late Robert Bresson, a filmmaker who specialized in austere, abstract stories about humans in psychological traps, in Diary of a Country Priest, Pickpocket and L'argent. Kerrigan utilizes similar alienating effects to isolate his main character, and imitates Bresson's placement of tortured characters in an everyday context. But Kerrigan doesn't posit any kind of spiritual foundation underlying the bland horror of reality, and Claire Dolan is not trying to be a martyr, not even unconsciously. Quite the opposite of Bresson's protagonists, Claire is a survivor type willing to go through hell and determined to come out intact on the other side. Her self-reliance and ability to withstand emotional pressure is admirable; although she often appears to be on the brink of emotional collapse, she keeps her self control.
Kerrigan's visual control can only be described as rigorous. The pictures open on vast expanses of staring windows and many of Claire's assignations occur in offices, in front of floor-length glass windows facing buildings with other glass windows. She's performing all of these acts in a giant fishbowl for the world to see, and nobody cares. Kerrigan stylizes his settings, sometimes distractingly. Claire meets Roland in warm bars but everyone else lives in featureless apartments with modernistic décor. Kerrigan often uses long lenses that flatten perspective, placing Claire in a forest of glass boxes and unidentifiable architecture. One rather unlikely conversation between her and D'Onofrio's cab driver takes place without explanation on a rooftop -- just two people talking against a city backdrop.
New Yorker's DVD of Claire Dolan appears to come from a fine-quality enhanced transfer. Color is excellent and the image looks fine on a normal television, but on a large screen it's evident that the encoding is light on the bits: Definition doesn't hold up and details and lines of contrast are mushy. But overall it's an adequate presentation.
Kent Jones of the Film Society of Lincoln Center offers a ten-minute audio introduction that plays over stills. As some of these will spoil the feature, save this extra until you've seen the feature. Jones' analysis explains the visual strategies Kerrigan uses to get his alienating effects. A trailer is also included, that understandably shows none of the racier material from the movie. The best extra is a fascinating text interview with Katrin Cartlidge from a 2000 radio broadcast. It shares space on an insert foldout with a short essay by Michael Atkinson.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Claire Dolan rates:
Supplements: Trailer, audio introduction by Kent Jones, Insert text interview with Katrin Cartlidge and essay by Michael Atkinson
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 3, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson