Claire Dolan (1998)

Review

A clinically austere art house film, Claire Dolan is Lodge Kerrigan’s follow-up to the rigorous Clean, Shaven. He opens with cool, carefully composed images of impassive skyscrapers, a hollow wind whistling through, before moving to the reticent, emotionally disconnected title character.

Claire Dolan (Katrin Cartlidge, Naked) is a high priced prostitute, so down on her luck she phones her johns from a pay phone. ‘I miss you. I want to see you. I really want you inside me. I can be there in ten minutes.’ All her human interaction is reduced to a minimalist bargaining of her goods for exchange.

Every line of dialogue is pared down to simple, direct statements spoken by the walking dead, devoid of passion, pity or conviction. Kerrigan’s world is a vacuum of lost souls who find no solace in their frequent sexual intercourse, only distraction from their lives of wary skepticism and veiled threats.

Claire’s sole emotional link to the rest of the world has already died. Her ailing mother has recently passed away, and Claire automatically moves toward the one thing that may restore some coherence and purpose to her miserable life: the dream of filling her mother’s role by bearing a child.

Moving from the desolate streets and skyscrapers of Manhattan to the warehouse streets and lonely coffee shops of New Jersey, escaping her pimp (subtle Colm Meaney, who brings a chilly efficiency to the role). Claire has a disinterested sexual affair with an inarticulate cab driver (Vincent D’Onofrio, The Cell) who, upon learning of her life as a prostitute, begins to follow her, Taxi Driver style. In this world, though, Travis Bickle will get the living shit kicked out of him if he moves into territory he doesn’t understand.

Kerrigan paints a world of zero empathy. The vapid dialogue exists only to fill dead air between the frequent sex scenes, which are shot as functional, cold, even unfriendly, piled on one after another.

There’s not much compassion and even less humor in the nearly unwatchable Claire Dolan, a fine piece of filmmaking that presents little relief for all its agony. While Kerrigan offers an assured voice of cinematic authority, finding the melancholy emotional undercurrent in each frame, his minimalist dialogue feels too stilted and inorganic.

Claire Dolan is helped enormously by some fine performances by Meaney, D’Onofrio and the courageous Katrin Cartlidge, who has slowly but resolutely built up a body of work in challenging and provocative films such as Naked, Breaking the Waves and Before the Rain. The camera seems fascinated by her weathered face and slightly crooked teeth, her moments of subdued introspection. Her prostitute seems closer to reality than most ‘heart of gold’ Hollywood variations (a la Leaving Las Vegas). There’s something appealing in Cartlidge’s performance that arouses pathos. She’s attractive in a real, unforced way. Her considerable intensity is kept in reserve; few actors make silence so compelling.

There’s a devastating example of psychological violence under the polite surface of a chance encounter on the streets of New York, where one person holds the cards against another, and a third person — an innocent — is left painfully in the dark. It’s unsettling in an almost comical way and difficult to articulate, which almost redeems the unwavering tone of bleak chic that permeates Claire Dolan.