If Robert Greene’s last film “Actress” was an experiment to see how a person able to engage in fiction operated in the real world, it would seem like “Kate Plays Christine” is a product of reversing that instinct, setting an actress – in this case, Kate Lyn Sheil – prepare for a part, only for the role to consume her completely, eventually to the point where she’s morally questioning whether she should play it. Greene couldn’t have come up with a more devilish part for Sheil to tackle than Christine Chubbuck, a TV news reporter in Sarasota, Florida who earned notoriety after killing herself during a live broadcast. (Even before seeing Sheil struggle with the role, you could ask Rebecca Hall, who appears in Antonio Campos’ “Christine,” also playing at Sundance.)
Though the research process is often alluded to by actors in interviews, you’ve never quite seen how one actually uses it to develop a character as Sheil does here, with the actress playing the role of detective long before she actually gets to playing Chubbuck, visiting with the few that knew the reporter and retracing her steps towards the night of her suicide. While she makes appointments to physically transform herself through spray tan sessions and optometry appointments for lenses that will turn her blue eyes to Chubbuck’s brown, Sheil’s growing empathy for the woman she’s been cast as is the most visible metamorphosis, reading the articles written about her when firsthand accounts are limited and obviously troubled by how she’s characterized by many of her co-workers that likely never tried all that hard to get to know her. You actually see the burden this places on Sheil to get it right, if not in a historically accurate sense, at least to her own satisfaction.
If that’s all Greene were up to, it’d be enough since it’s rare to see a set-up in which the acting process can be observed with such a keen eye, but that’s just scratching the surface of what he accomplishes with “Kate Plays Christine,” which may be his most accessible fusion of narrative and nonfiction to date. No small part of the credit goes to Sheil, an inviting and insightful presence even as she grows more and more tortured about the character she’s playing. (Interviews with other actors in the film within a film also contribute to this, suggesting that even their small roles are invested with personal experience.) But Greene, who moonlights as an editor for other filmmakers such as Alex Ross Perry when not directing himself, continues to find interesting ways to blend reportage or verite footage with scenes that dramatize what information they pick up from the research – rather than reveal the artificiality of even so-called “documentary” filmmaking, it can actually be seen doing the opposite, with the narrative augmenting the nonfiction to find a real truth, even though it may not necessarily be intended to confirm what has been established in fact.
Although it wouldn’t seem like there would be a connection, “Kate Plays Christine” kept reminding me of Frank Pavich’s recent “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” which chronicled Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempts at a mega-budgeted adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel, not in its style, but its ability to get at something on record that couldn’t actually exist in reality – placing concrete ideas in the viewers’ mind that are allowed to manifest into something incredibly real, though it’s never actually made tangible. This feels more and more essential as the film wears on since Sheil’s interviews with Sarasotans yield less information than conjecture as well as a rapidly vanishing history that by making a film, she and Greene will eventually turn into the official record when nothing else exists in the culture. (The tape of Chubbuck’s death, a subject of much debate, has never found its way online and believed by some not to exist at all.)
Thankfully, “Kate Plays Christine” doesn’t only consider the responsibility of this, but engages it in a conscientious way that not only provokes, but even becomes a source of great suspense. It doesn’t sensationalize Chubbuck’s death and yet it is sensational.
“Kate Plays Christine” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play two more times at the Sundance Film Festival on January 28th at noon at the Library Center Theatre and January 29th at 10 pm at the Redstone Cinema 2.