A rarefied, emotionally distant art film, "Claire Dolan" is a rigorously controlled, occasionally arresting study of a New York prostitute's systematic attempt to take control of her life.

A rarefied, emotionally distant art film, “Claire Dolan” is a rigorously controlled, occasionally arresting study of a New York prostitute’s systematic attempt to take control of her life. Much more attentive to aspects of film form, hard stylized surfaces and its clinical interest in a call girl’s work schedule than in illuminating the inner life of its characters, Lodge Kerrigan’s new work represents a slightly disappointing sidestep rather than a significant stride beyond his edgy, genuinely disturbing debut with “Clean, Shaven” in 1993. Of possible appeal only to the most intellectual critics and viewers, some of whom will be very taken with the film’s cinematic discipline, this will fall in the watching-paint-dry category even for specialized audiences, spelling dim commercial prospects.

Buffs will invoke such names as Bresson and Godard in trying to describe this airless but undeniably impressive picture by a genuinely maverick American director, who here has been entirely financed by a French company. By imprisoning his characters within walls of mirrors, glass, chrome, plastic and often unadorned surfaces, and by manipulating the sound mix to an unusual degree, Kerrigan skillfully creates an intimidating, claustrophobic world in which his protagonist conducts her determined odyssey toward a new life.

Unlike some similar dramas, “Claire Dolan” does not pursue conventional themes such as the retention of the inner self while experiencing the ordeal of prostitution, or self-liberation upon throwing over the working-girl life; in fact, title character faces a whole new set of imposing challenges when she finally succeeds in placing herself in a different world. There are no value judgments here, nor is there an emotional catharsis to offer an audience even the slightest assist in warming up to this intensely calculated tale.

Claire (Katrin Cartlidge) is a Dublin native who devotes nearly all her waking hours to working off a large debt to presumed mobster Roland Cain (Colm Meaney), who has known her since she was a girl. Claire, who has rid herself of any trace of an Irish accent, strives to please her generally upscale clientele, and seems to be well compensated in exchange.

After her mother dies, Claire lets herself be picked up by a good-looking guy in a bar. But the hoped-for mind-clearing sex falls short of relieving her distress, and Claire remains intensely bottled up emotionally and physically. Another chance encounter in a bar, with a taxi driver named Elton (Vincent D’Onofrio), shows some promise of changing that. Although still not able to loosen up altogether sexually, Claire responds to the attentive Elton, and continues seeing him.

Brief interludes of sideline activity complement the central preoccupation with the protagonist’s domestic and professional lives: Claire visits her cousin in Newark and enjoys playing with her niece; Elton spies on her until he discovers what she does for a living, unsuccessfully tries to communicate with his teenage daughter and, in the most powerful scene in the picture, is robbed at gunpoint in his taxi, apparently at the behest of Cain, who doesn’t appreciate that Elton has given money to Claire to hasten the day that she will be able to wipe out her debt.

Slowly, Claire moves to the stage of informing Elton that she wants to have a child. This is done with the same measured style with which she approaches her work. Ending is sweet, ambivalent and unexpected, in that it focuses upon the men in the story rather than Claire.

Still, Cartlidge’s Claire reps the core of the film, and her presence is essential in holding viewer interest in this deliberately paced study. Thoughtful, tightly wound but controled enough to seldom lose her cool, Claire emerges as an impressive woman in her inclination to deal as directly as possible with whatever situations she faces. Very restrained under Kerrigan’s tight rein, Cartlidge remains emotionally tapped down in a turn utterly different, for instance, from her acerbic, zingy work in her last film, Mike Leigh’s “Career Girls.” Current performance is commanding in its own way, but the distance the writer-director creates between character and audience prevents Claire from sharing her inner life.

D’Onofrio is appealing enough if unassertive; one keeps waiting for his character to break through with the pent-up Claire in some significant way that would justify her anointing him as her man of choice. One key post-coital scene seems to be leading to some meaningful communication, but it’s cut frustratingly short. Meaney brings welcome weight and charm to his powerful character, who is by turns solicitous and menacing in his relations with Claire.

In the end, pic feels too much like an exercise, an attempt by a man to explore the life of a woman practicing the oldest profession, but one doomed to remaining on the outside; Kerrigan conveys the constructs and external dynamics of her daily existence and eventual release from bondage, but not her feelings, complexities or humanity.

Almost exclusively selecting modern, soulless settings defined by reflective or flatly uncolorful surfaces, Kerrigan has managed to make a New York film that is chilly rather than gritty. To this end, Teodoro Maniaci’s camerawork is beautifully modulated, Kristina Boden’s editing is precise, the score by Ahrin Mishan and Simon Fisher Turner contributes weird atonalities, and the sound is unusually textured.

Claire Dolan

Production

A Marin Karmitz presentation of an MK2 Prods/Serene Films production. (International sales: MK2 Diffusion, Paris.) Produced by Ann Ruark. Directed, written by Lodge Kerrigan.

Crew

Camera (DuArt color), Teodoro Maniaci; editor, Kristina Boden; music, Ahrin Mishan, Simon Fisher Turner; production designer, Sharon Lomofsky; set decorator, Susan Ogu; costume designer, Laura Jean Shannon; sound (Dolby SR), Peter Schneider; supervising sound editor, Tom Paul; assistant director, John Tyson; casting, Avy Kauf-man. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 20, 1998. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Claire Dolan - Katrin Cartlidge Elton Garrett - Vincent D'Onofrio Roland Cain - Colm Meaney Cain's friend - John Doman Mary Egan - Maryanne Plunkett Angela - Miranda Stuart-Rhyne Madeline Garrett - Kate Skinner Man in Chicago Cafe - David Little Salon Client #2 - Lola Pashalinski Man in Bar - Jim Frangione Driver - Ed Hodson $1000 Trick - Tom Gilroy Newark Cab Driver - John Ventimiglia (English dialogue)

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