Review by Jaymes Durante
Documentary tends to be thought of as a medium that respects reality with far fewer caveats than the compromised fiction film. In 2014, surveying a landmark year in documentary – although he prefers the term ‘cinematic nonfiction’ – critic and director Robert Greene was resolute: “Nonfiction film has been thoroughly disentangled from journalism, and can now be safely cast as Art, free to play by the rules of fiction. This is good, right?” Putting theory into practice with his new film Actress, Greene loiters in the slippage between fiction and reality, crafting a delicate, intricate, cinematic trompe l’oeil about the nature of documentary itself. It’s a very deliberate act of criticism that flouts expectations – you try to grab at it and it crumbles in your fingers.
Ostensibly, Actress is about The Wire supporting player Brandy Burre’s long-gestating attempt at a career comeback after a hiatus to raise a family. Shot methodically with a grainy, lo-fi camera, and edited in a sequence of impressionistic swabs, it bears resemblance to a typical example of cinema verité. What Greene accomplishes is more graded and complicated than any observational portrait of Hollywood’s gender-based inequities could be; by employing these visual signifiers to denote documentary-style authenticity, Greene forces an assessment of authenticity itself. Burre is a naturalistic performer, but the director scatters clues throughout the film to pique audience suspicion. At one point Burre repeats her ‘lines’ for the camera, which has a questionably vast access to her life, at times following her into the shower. She even poses for a poetic moment in the likeness of a weeping Madonna. It becomes clear over time that Actress is as constructed as it is ‘authentic’, and that these categories are as valid in life as they are in cinema.
Employing the traditional terminology of fiction and reality is to miss Actress’s attuned criticism of the state of nonfiction filmmaking. Lingering over Burre’s daily make-up ritual, Greene makes an implicit point about the masks people employ for the different roles they play in their lives: Burre is able to transform from playful mother to ebullient friend with an effortless change to her hair or wardrobe. For Greene’s camera, she performs as herself, creating a character moulded from the detritus of her life and experiences. Greene suggests that we all perform roles and rituals, no matter what claim to factual reality we make. In this way, Actress is a richer and more telling account of life in Hollywood’s hall of mirrors than any conventional talking-heads iteration could ever be, shattering the illusions of documentary form as it implicitly weaves a truth.