It’s an overused line in celebrity journalism that the most challenging role any actor faces in their career is that of him- or herself — a public persona often no less constructed than any character they assume on screen or stage. Few films, however, have presented the notion of self-performance as perceptively or provocatively as Robert Greene’s extraordinary “Actress” — a documentary portrait of character actress and mother-of-two Brandy Burre in which even the most intimate domestic exchanges bear a compelling hint of artifice. Whether Burre is consciously playing herself or whether the reality of any performer’s life involves an instinctive degree of removal and representation, however, is left for the audience to determine — just one of many post-screening conversations likely to be prompted by this singularly playful, subtly troubling one-off.
Beyond dedicated viewers of HBO’s low-rated but critically beloved series “The Wire” — in which she had a tangy recurring role in the third and fourth seasons — few audience members are likely to have heard of Burre, which is at once beside the point of Greene’s inverted character study, and the point itself. A middle-class Ohio native living comfortably but modestly with her long-term b.f. and two young children in sleepily suburban Beacon, N.Y., she’s hardly recognizable enough for a glimpse of her daily life to carry any kind of salacious behind-the-curtain appeal.
Rather, it’s Burre herself who seems persistently surprised by the actuality of her existence, as if motherhood is a role she’s still researching rather than playing outright. “This is my creative outlet now, I guess,” she says with a wry smile, gesturing vaguely at the healthily unkempt household around her. She doesn’t sound especially convinced, though: It’s clear she misses the full-time thesping career that she put on the backburner after childbirth, and to which she’s making a keen but obstacle-ridden attempt to return. Greene slyly posits the idea that homemaking might be something of an act for our heroine from the film’s first, eerily stylized frame: Introduced from behind, brittlely poised at her kitchen sink in an elegantly cinched scarlet house dress, Burre cuts a positively Sirkian figure of heightened femininity. Her arch, measured voiceover, meanwhile, hints at her edgy discomfort within this environment: “I tend to break things,” she drawls, and one senses it’s not merely the crockery at risk.
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Given this woozily elliptical opening, with its muffled ambience and saturated palette — call it kitchen-sink surrealism, if you will — viewers may initially be uncertain whether they’re watching a documentary, a narrative feature or a Cindy Sherman-style installation. It soon becomes clear, however, that however self-consciously Burre may present herself for the camera, those around her do not. Her children, Stella and Henry, are unaffectedly inquisitive and demanding of their mother, while her partner Tim keeps a pointedly low profile around her — so much so that the couple’s mutual inattentiveness begins to seem less a film-related compromise than a deeper romantic impasse.
And so it proves: As the film unfolds with a formal economy that somehow never seems geared toward a planned thematic objective, “Actress” emerges as not just a Cassavetes-scale deconstruction of a woman at close quarters, but a devastatingly acute anatomy of a break-up that maintains impartiality even with an overwhelmingly one-sided perspective. The audience is never privy to Tim’s side of the story, but Burre’s ongoing commentary reveals — by implication, by conspicious omission and sometimes by direct admission — the degree of responsibility she can claim for the disintegration of their relationship.
Whether lashing out at others or dispensing lacerating self-critique, Burre expresses emotion no less candidly than she would in a fictional context: Even her rawest confessions are delivered with an actorly awareness of dramatic consequence. By the time the film finishes on Burre’s galvanizing gaze, with a speech that echoes the bluntly articulated insecurities of her introduction, the jury may be out on whether her work here qualifies as performance art or pure performance — but there’s little doubting her ferocity as an actress.
For Greene, meanwhile, “Actress” represents an equally formidable showcase of artistic dexterity; his style bears the influence of documentarians as humane as Shirley Clarke and as opaque as Andy Warhol, but remains resolutely his own. In more precocious hands, Greene’s densely self-reflexive premise could come across as coldly eggheaded, but his formal conviction and profound empathy for his honestly flawed subject ensure the film never feels ruled by its concept. The helmer also acts as his own editor and chief d.p., and his crisp, refined work in both those departments contributes to the pic’s simultaneous sense of intimacy and intent examination. “Actress” never explains the relationship (if any) between Greene and Burre, but his camera’s investment in her is unwavering — and she returns it with equally committed dependence.