‘Kate Plays Christine’ Plays With Form in Ways Rarely Seen in American Documentary

4th Row Films

Kate Plays Christine marks a monumental leap for filmmaker Robert Greene (Actress). And for American documentary, as well. I don’t know for certain that I love it, and I don’t think I like the ending, but it’s nevertheless an achievement unlike any other we’ll see in nonfiction cinema this year. This is a work that probably shouldn’t be reviewed at a film festival, particularly one as immediate-reaction-buzz-driven as Sundance. It should be viewed, admired, studied, enjoyed, or not, and then mulled over in the mind with nothing interfering — not quickly followed by one or four more movies and maybe a party. But it’s there, and this review is here. I’ll see it again later. I’d like to write about it again later, too.

It’s a difficult film to critique right away. It’s a difficult film to describe, at least to do it justice. Kate Plays Christine is a documentary of the making of a movie about Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota news reporter who killed herself on live television in 1974. But the movie being made is this movie. Or part of it. I’d say it’s a film within a film, but that makes it sound like there’s a fake movie inside the real movie. It’s all just one real movie. At its center is actress Kate Lyn Sheil (House of Cards), who has been cast in the role of Chubbuck. For her preparation, she gathers as much information as she can on the infamous yet mostly forgotten suicide, interviewing people who knew Chubbuck and others who could provide some insight into the character.

In part, it’s a typical investigative doc, only we’re following an actress researching a role instead of a journalistic filmmaker. Those interviews she conducts on screen, in addition to a handful Greene does with the rest of her fellow dramatic players, will be seen by many as the only elements qualifying Kate Plays Christine as a legitimate documentary. Most of Sheil’s scenes appear to be staged or just planned, whether she’s hailing a cab or walking out of a store or firing off a revolver at a shooting range or yelling at Greene in between takes of her portrayal of Chubbuck. I gave up trying to figure out what was authentically observed and what was not, and I realized this film shouldn’t be looked at as a puzzle anyway.

Even if Greene was the type to make a more conventional doc, Chubbuck wouldn’t be an easy subject for the standard approach. Not only is the tape of her death not available (if it even truly exists, as is claimed in the film), but there isn’t much footage of her work available at all. So it would have to be something with a lot of reenactment (similar to Chris James Thompson’s The Jeffrey Dahmer Files). Those kinds of films always come off as irregular, the talking heads and the dramatic scenes never quite fitting together. Kate Plays Christine will have a lot of people talking about how it blurs the line between narrative and nonfiction, but the more remarkable thing it does is smooth over the lines of documentary form.

Greene’s previous film, Actress, also focused on an actress, and he’s always shown an interest in performance through his directorial work. Kate Plays Christine continues that wheelhouse, now splitting concentration on an actress and a TV personality, but stylistically he’s really evolving as an artist. He takes some bold risks here. Although it’s all very exciting for being so fresh, that doesn’t mean everything works. Without spoiling the ending, it needs to be addressed for taking such a jarring twist in tone. I think it might actually be a brilliant turn, yet in a way that is too scolding of the audience if meant one way. It seems to take us all to task for being interested in Chubbuck’s story, for why we are, and also possibly for wanting clarity in what parts of Sheil’s performance is “acting” or scripted.

After only one viewing, I honestly don’t know what Kate Plays Christine is about. Or what it is, exactly. I mean it is and is about a lot of things, on a number of levels. I get that for Greene, Sheil and regular cinematographer Sean Price Williams that this film was less precise in its making than it seems, as well as that they — Greene in particular, as director and editor — had a lot more time to think about what it ultimately is than I have. Again, I think this will be a documentary that will change with multiple viewings, and for the most part my initial experience was with a compelling but challenging story of a woman having trouble fully understanding a role she’s playing. And I don’t necessarily mean that role to be Chubbuck.

I will note that one of my favorite observations after a brief time of thought is how there’s a most certainly accidental theme of relocation. Sheil visits the gun store that Chubbuck bought her revolver from, but it’s in a different place now. And the television station that used to be Chubbuck’s place of work also moved to another building. And similarly, a portrayal of a person such as Chubbuck is a relocation of their persona, in representational terms. There’s no experiencing these things as they used to be anymore, nor Chubbuck’s home, which Sheil also explores but only as it looks after 40 years, empty. That’s why the film can’t be about Chubbuck, since no matter what it’s not the original Christine. It could only have ever been about Kate playing Christine.

This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2016.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.