Writer/director Lodge Kerrigan's debut film, Clean, Shaven was, for me, one of those nice, surprise films. The concept sounded great and was five times better, a small film, built around an inventive idea, and damn near brilliant in it's execution. So, when it came time for his sophomore effort, Claire Dolan (1998), you could count me among those who were very interested in his next effort.
Claire Dolan (Katrin Cartlidge- Naked, Breaking the Waves) is a Manhattan prostitute, moderately priced but serving high end customers, not a streetwalker by any means. She is in debt to a pimp, Roland Cain (Colm Meany- Star Trek TNG & DS9, The Snapper), who helped her get care for her immigrant mother who slowly wastes away in an old age home. Claire engages her clients with an icy efficiency, spouting off lines like ‟I want you to fuck me.‟ in an impassive monotone. She appears to have kept her life a secret and has no friends, so when her mother dies, Claire finds herself turning to a total stranger on the street and saying, ‟I buried my mother today.‟
Claire keeps her mothers passing from Roland and it becomes the launching point for Claire to try and escape her life and start a new one. She moves to New Jersey, reacquaints herself with an old friend, gets a job and a hairdresser, and begins to have a relationship with a cab driver named Elton (Vincent D'Onfrio- Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Full Metal Jacket). But Claire has paranoid feelings of being followed and receives hang-up phone calls. Roland has tracked her down. Claire is forced to move back to Manhattan. She continues to see Elton, who wants to save her but may not be able to, and it is pregnancy that may finally serve as the chance for Claire to finally find the strength and break away for good.
Claire Dolan is essentially a mood piece. Lodge Kerrigan creates a flat antiseptic environment where it isn't the fear of disease our titular prostitute has to worry about so much as the icy emotional funk of serving a manipulative, snake in sheep's skin pimp and callous clients. Its is a film with a lot of sex but, pretty much, zero eroticism. Venturing more into the realm of a bleak urban portrait, you wont find any Hollywood hooker with a heart of gold strains from Claire or Travis Bickle revenge redemption for Elton.
Cartridlge's less than glamour-doll physicality, sharp facial features, thin, pursed lips, and dark-pooled eyes are the perfect embodiment of this woman not meant for but resigned to the profession she has skillfully yet begrudgingly undertaken and yearns to abandon. Of course beyond looks alone, she has considerable talents as an actress and is able to convey Claire's defiance, fear, and withered emotional state with just a steely glance. Often in the frank sex scenes, she gives you a good sense of the conflicted guilt where Claire's emotional disgust for the action doesn't match her fleeting pangs of physical pleasure. I'm pretty ashamed to say, despite loving her work in other films, it wasn't until I sat down to write the is review that I found out Cartlidge had died in 2002 due to complications from a blood infection.
The films biggest success may also be its greatest detriment. While I think those involved clearly have empathy for the characters, in so skillfully crafting the emotionally cold aesthetic of Claire Dolan's world, something gets lost. I understand that the flatness of the architecture, set design, and photogrpahy was meant to further enhance the tone of the film, but purposefully, they carried over their intent into the performances with mannered, sometimes robotic acting. I know it was intended to convey the emotional distance between the characters but unfortunately it robbed the characters of feeling organic and alive. While Cartlidge, D'nofrio, and Meany admirably breaks out in certain scenes, in the overall scheme, it looks like they were guided to keep the emotions on simmer in a way that doesnt always translate effectively onsceen. I think Kerrigan's attention to making the visuals and acting maintain a certain emotive distance took away from viewers deeper emotional investment.
The DVD: New Yorker.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. The film has a great visual design, tight compositions with soft cool color schemes, nary a strong warm color to be seen throughout the entire running time. In general the print looked very vice, relatively clean and sharp. However, I quickly noticed some unevenness and knew fairly quickly something was just not quite right. With a quick pause and a slight zoom you see that the darker areas appear quite noisy. During playback, one can see evidence of combing in certain scenes. Well, knowing New Yorker films, it is pretty safe to say these problems stem from this being a straight PAL to NTSC transfer because they are a company known for doing so and this is a common problem when you use such elements.
Sound: Dolby 2.0 Stereo. Good score, light piano and violin. The film doesn't have any moments that require more than the basic bit of dialogue, some subtle score, and minimal atmospheric fx work.
Extras: Intro by Kent Jones (9:10). Audio over still images from the film. — Liner Notes: Intro by Michael Atkinson and interview with actress Katrin Cartlidge by Prairie Miller.
Conclusion: Caire Dolan is a film that while not wholly perfect, is still very well-made, haunting in its tone and subject, and skillfully acted by the main leads. Fans of art house, indie drama should be very keen on the film. While the transfer is far from perfect, it is a case of beggars cant be choosers. Those who are technically picky may want to stick to a rental, but, personally, I think it is an engaging enough film to merit a purchase despite the transfer quibbles.