Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lodge Kerrigan's Claire Dolan (1998)

Claire Dolan dreams of escape. The idea of exile from her life, her pimp and New York City haunts her everyday but a huge debt, her own personal demons and her dying mother make any sort of exit a near impossibility. When her mother passes away at a local nursing home, Claire sees a chance to get out and flees to nearby Newark where she attempts to start a new life working at a salon. Her past soon catches up with her though and Claire realizes that the one thing she wants most might be the one thing that will allude her forever.

Directed with a chilling and icy precision by screenwriter and director Lodge Kerrigan, Claire Dolan is one of the nineties great often overlooked films. Featuring a truly astonishing performance from the much-missed Katrin Cartlidge, who appears in nearly every scene of the film as the possibly doomed title character, Claire Dolan is a fiercely intelligent American work steeped in a distinctly European Art Film tradition.

Claire Dolan was the second film from the controversial Kerrigan, with the first being the ferocious Clean, Shaven (1994). Kerrigan has unfortunately been less than prolific in his fascinating career, with only two features since Claire Dolan, but each of his films have an authoritative style to them that is both shocking and surprising. Claire Dolan especially is a film that defies description and it is totally unpredictable throughout. We as an audience just follow the mesmerizing Cartlidge around each corner terrified of what might happen to her but so engrossed that we dare not look away.

British born Katrin Cartlidge was one of the nineties most exciting and talented actors and her work throughout the decade with filmmakers like Mike Leigh and Lars Von Trier shows her as a performer of remarkable depth and limitless potential. Her fearless go-for-broke performance in Claire Dolan is probably her greatest work and it remains one of the great performances of the past couple of decades. Cartlidge would sadly pass away just a few years after shooting Claire Dolan due to complications from pneumonia and septicaemia, a tragedy that robbed cinema of one of its greatest young actors as well as pulling the driving muse from one of our greatest auteurs.

Of the many things to admire about Claire Dolan, from Kerrigan's stunning use of space in his frames, to Cartlidge's performance, to Teodoro Maniaci's at times eerie New York City location photography, perhaps the films greatest attribute is its willingness to go to unexpected places and its ability to get an audience to accept these choices. A key point in the film occurs an hour or so in when Kerrigan suddenly presents a near shot-for-shot redo of a famous moment in Taxi Driver, a moment that invites the audience to predict where the last half-hour of the film will go. Kerrigan then proceeds to dislodge that anticipation with a series of unexpected, and deliberately deflating, scenes that turn Claire Dolan into something totally different from Scorsese's New York Classic. Kerrigan is playing with the audience but he's doing so in such a serious way that it is just for the film's benefit and not at the audiences expense.

Like all of Lodge Kerrigan's other films, Claire Dolan proved a polarizing experience to both critics and audiences. Greeted with both raves and jeers, Claire Dolan did receive some well-deserved nominations at Cannes and the Independent Spirit Awards but it ended up barely playing theatrically at all. It is currently available on Region 1 DVD courtesy of one of New Yorker's typically disappointing and overpriced discs. I am confident Artificial Eye's Region 2 disc probably presents the film better but, like the New Yorker Disc, it is sadly short on extras as well. Claire Dolan is a film ripe for rediscovery and I think would be an ideal film for a future Criterion Collection. In the meantime, seek it out in any form you can, it's a truly haunting and pulverising work.

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