A just-retired actress — played to perfection by Ellen Barkin — faces the void left by a life emptied of all roles save herself in Cam Archer’s handsome black-and-white imagefest, “Shit Year.” Slightly more controlled than his inspired but undisciplined debut “Wild Tigers I Have Known,” the pic offers a poetic/fantastic exploration of a performer cut loose from performing. However, Archer cuts his story loose as well, meaning scenes alternate effectiveness while the whole loses some steam. Pluses tip the balance in favor of a semi-rosy life at fests, with cult-like possibilities in urban arthouse centers.

Following a brief color shot of a girl on a beach running toward a fire, the helmer shifts to seductively textured black-and-white that brings out the most attractive elements of the 16mm stock. Rickie Lee Jones’ homespun voice acts as introductory narrator, lending a brief “Our Town” quality to a theme more reminiscent of “Sweet Bird of Youth’s” Alexandra Del Lago, albeit without Tennessee Williams’ theatrical swings.

After 35 films in 30 years, famed actress Colleen West (Barkin) is throwing in the towel. “I’ll miss everything, but I had everything,” she tells an interviewer, though she knows full well it’s just an expected line to recite. What she has, besides her former career, is the memory of a recent affair with 22-year-old actor Harvey (model-pretty Luke Grimes) and a cottage in the woods. Neither her obsession with Harvey nor her newfound isolation help fill the hole left by portraying other people her entire life.

Archer keeps West largely in a vacuum — no cell phone, no friends or assistants — where she’s never recognized by the people with whom she interacts. Chief among these is neighbor Shelly (hilariously thesped by Melora Walters), a chipper, craftsy housewife whose conversations with Colleen constitute some of the pic’s most enjoyable dialogue. Interspersed with scenes in the here-and-now, as well as memories of her affair with Harvey, are fantasy sequences set in a place that resembles a cross between heaven and a UFO, presided over by the imposing Marion (Theresa Randle). Here, Colleen’s subconscious tries to come to terms with her new life, haunted by a nightmarish silhouetted figure in the forest.

“I’m surrounded by a world of nothing. When did this nothing become my something?” asks Colleen, seeking definition for her new role. Archer’s given a gift to Barkin fans (a larger club than Hollywood studios seem to credit), offering the actress a fully-developed central role that takes advantage of her reflexive ability to shape her character’s deep insecurities with an overlay of lived-in confidence and power. Plus, auds get to delight in the deft way she tosses off lines, like Barbara Stanwyck at her most snide. Harvey is largely decorative, part real and part Colleen’s fantasy creation of a young lover, and as such he’s underdeveloped, though Grimes is able to carve out a presence.

As with “Wild Tigers,” Archer keeps his scenes short, and at times seems unable to rein in his flood of ideas. The pileup hinders a sense of drive, though “Shit Year” stays engrossing thanks not only to Barkin’s strengths but also Archer’s compositional eye. Together with d.p. Aaron Platt, he’s created a world of striking images that combine elements from such black-and-white photographic masters as Garry Winogrand and Ansel Adams. Overexposed whites serve to reinforce Colleen’s vulnerability while enhancing the lensing’s tactile pleasures.

The art department furthers a hermetic feel through period details that convey the sense Colleen is living in a retro world. Appropriate tracks, mostly by indie darling Sarabeth Tucek, form just the right accompaniment, as does a sometimes spectral soundscape that backs up Colleen’s troubled search for meaning.

Shit Year

  • Production: A Parts and Labor production, in association with Strange Loop Entertainment, Wild Invention. (International sales: The Match Factory, Berlin.) Produced by Lars Knudsen, Jay van Hoy. Executive producers, Ian McGloin, Jamie Mai, Charlie Ledley, Tory Lenosky. Rabinder Sira, Dallas M. Brennan, Chris Gilligan. Directed, written by Cam Archer.
  • Crew: Camera (B&W/color, 16mm-to-35mm), Aaron Platt; editor, Madeleine Riley; music, Mick Turner, Sarabeth Tucek; production designer, Elizabeth Birkenbuel; art director, James Obed; costume designers, Stephanie Volkmar, Stacey Battat; sound (Dolby DR), Cam Archer, Nate Archer, Jasper Bel; assistant director, Jenna Brown; casting, Julia Kim. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight), May 15, 2010. Running time: 95 MIN.
  • With: With: Ellen Barkin, Melora Walters, Theresa Randle, Bob Einstein, Luke Grimes. Narrator: Rickie Lee Jones.