Executed and even scripted with rhetorical intent, news reporter Christine Chubbuck’s on-air suicide in 1974 was itself a kind of grotesque performance piece — until, at least, its completion took any agency out of the performer’s hands. It’s not surprising, then, that her story should have captured the imagination of Robert Greene, a docmaker fixated on the malleable line between reality and performance, and the degree of artifice effected by the camera on our purported true selves. In his teasing, testing and vexingly brilliant new film, “Kate Plays Christine,” Greene pursues a more empathetic understanding of an inscrutable woman via the raw-nerved research process of actress Kate Lyn Sheil, as she prepares to play Chubbuck in a biopic that ostensibly doesn’t exist. Whether it succeeds, or whether its subject simply grows more distant the closer we look, is open to debate — much of it within the film itself.
Marking one of the more improbable overlaps in recent film production history, “Kate Plays Christine’s” Sundance premiere aligns with that of “Christine,” Antonio Campos’ narrative version of Chubbuck’s story — neither film having been conceived with any knowledge of the other. Whether or not that confluence is of interest to distributors and exhibitors remains to be seen — after all, not many auds are likely to steel themselves through a Christine Chubbuck double bill — but we can expect the films to be repeatedly paired and discussed in tandem on the festival circuit. Taken alone, Greene’s film should build on the modest release platform afforded his excellent, comparably themed 2014 feature, “Actress.”
Coincidental as the doubling up may be, it could prove fortuitous for both filmmakers, whose contrasting approaches to the same factual material inform each other in mutually fascinating ways. Both films take interpretive liberties that speak to Greene’s interest in the camera’s elastic influence on received wisdom, and identify different metaphorical reference points for Chubbuck’s curdled ambition in popular television of the era: While “Christine” found a cruel counterpoint to her fate in the you-can-have-it-all spirit of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the re-enactments in “Kate Plays Christine” fashion her story as heightened, aspirational soap opera.
“If there’s anything that leaves a sour taste in my mouth, it’s failure,” intones Sheil at the film’s outset, quoting from Chubbuck’s diaries and encapsulating the unforgiving pressure the young journalist — frustrated by romantic and professional setbacks in the Sarasota newsroom where she worked — applied to herself. Sheil repeats the line at a later stage in the film, by which time it has gained an additional, self-reflexive layer: As the actress wrestles with the difficulty (and what she increasingly views as the debatable responsibility) of impersonating Chubbuck on screen, her own despondency is present in the words. Or perhaps not: How much Sheil is “acting” her emotional responses as she gets into character is hard to determine, echoing the ambiguity of thesp Brandy Burre’s self-presentation in “Actress.”
Speaking as herself, meanwhile, Sheil — an independent-film fixture whom mainstream auds may recognize from TV’s “House of Cards” — best describes acting as an outlet for her “to be seen,” before voicing her concern that such an impulse is unhealthy. Greene is not one to needle his subjects with questions, but the apparent parallel here with Chubbuck’s own desire for visibility — and its final, morbid manifestation — is conspicuously unspoken.
A soft, low-key presence in person and onscreen (“If a performance of mine is called ‘subtle’ one more time, I might lose my mind,” she quips), Sheil appears increasingly rattled as she traces her character’s footsteps, whether pacing the unfurnished floors of the beachside house Chubbuck shared with her mother, or browsing weapons at the gun store where she acquired her fatal firearm. (In what could be viewed as a tacit jab at the Second Amendment, Sheil follows suit with ease.) Greene also dwells extensively on the physical aspects of Sheil’s research, as wigs, contact lenses, tanning beds and painstakingly selected outfits are piled on to conversely alienating effect: The more the actress dresses up as Chubbuck, the less she seems to evoke her.
The possibly intended irony of “Kate Plays Christine,” then, is that the final performance may be a less persuasive projection of Christine Chubbuck’s emotional reality than the exercises that lead to it. Sheil seems arch and disassociated in Greene’s dramatizations, which are brightly lit and bluntly articulated in the deliberate manner of daytime drama. (Sean Price Williams’ camera adroitly manipulates light and motion throughout to separate the film’s staggered levels of staged reality: Even the warm, close-quarters naturalism of the pic’s undramatized footage boasts a fine-tuned aesthetic.) Whether Sheil’s performance is channeling Chubbuck’s social awkwardness or revealing her own nervous reservations is ambiguous to the end — even as Sheil buckles while shooting the climactic suicide sequence, openly antagonizing the camera (and perhaps the audience) for its curiosity. Either way, it’s riveting work. Is she faltering or play-faltering? Is she lashing out at her director or still in collaboration with him? Is she Kate or Kate-as-Christine?
These are questions to which the film knowingly opens itself, though it never feels nebulous or non-committal. Rather, in disassembling his inquiry to this extent, Greene encourages our curiosity (and even a hint of caution) about documentary perspectives and techniques that other films prefer viewers to take as given. Dramatic reconstructions have become regularly integrated into the form, yet by outwardly discussing their performed nature — and the degree of uncertain subjectivity that has gone into their creation — Greene’s re-enactments finally highlight what remains unknowable about Christine Chubbuck. All documentary, after all, is narrative, vulnerable to conflicting voices and views.
Reality, however, doesn’t necessarily bring greater certainty. A turning point of “Kate Plays Christine” comes when Sheil, after a lengthy pursuit, finally sources some unremarkable broadcast tapes of Chubbuck. (The tape of her actual suicide, we are told, is under lock and key, though where and why to preserve it is a matter of some disagreement.) Yet aside from marking out the substantial space between the actress and the dissimilar woman she’s impersonating, there’s little that’s revelatory about the footage; seeing and hearing her in the video-captured flesh brings viewers and filmmakers alike no closer to her sad, perplexing reality. The camera never lies, goes the adage; in Greene’s haunting provocation, it just misplaces the truth.