Claire Dolan (1998)

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Synopsis: Claire Dolan ( Katrin Cartlidge ) works as a high-end call-girl in New York City. She seems to be a seasoned veteran, with no qualms about meeting new clients or calling up old ones. One day her mother suddenly dies and she decides to pack her bags and move across to Newark, New Jersey, leaving the world of prostitution behind her. Making a fresh start proves quite difficult at first, but she finds work as a beautician. Stability doesn’t last for long, she’s worried that she’s being followed and that much is true in fact, when Roland King, her former pimp,  who has tracked her down, forces her to come back to New York and keep working as a prostitute until the totality of her debt is paid off. Claire has no choice but to return, but before she leaves she meets Elton Garrett ( Vincent D’Onofrio ), a lonely cab driver who immediately falls for her. They develop feelings for each other and Claire claims she wants a child from him. But when Elton finds out what Claire really does for a living, he begins to spy on her, and their relationship takes a turn for the worst.  Will Claire ever be able to make a successful fresh start?

A triumph of theme, substance, and style, Lodge Kerrigan’s second feature “Claire Dolan”, about a sex-addicted high-end call girl in New York city, is also a fierce social critique as unsettling and mesmerizing as his feature debut “Clean Shaven” (my review here).

What was at first something internal experienced by one individual’s subjectivity (Clean, Shaven) appears to have been externalized. Mental instability and the impossibility to embody a coherent self is now an invisible agent trapping a particular individual in repetitious patterns of self-destructive behavior.

A closed-off personality, secretive about her family and her past, and without a network of friends and acquaintances, Claire’s loneliness and alienation illustrate the communicative gap separating her from the world. All she knows is her own world, whose sources are conveniently hidden from us and revealed only partially through the story.

A considerable amount of debt (the exact amount is never revealed) has kept her working for Roland King for a long time. It might have something to do with her mother who is seen in pictures with Roland, Claire’s pimp,  who was also in charge of making payments to the nursing home Claire’s mother stayed before she died.

Claire might just be a victim of  circumstance. She does what she does for money, but she also uses it as psychological release, a wicked catch-22 that makes her recede further into herself. Truly alone, Claire’s plan is to bear a child so that she can create new meaning in her life, away from the work she has already grown into.

When Elton Garrett enters the picture and tries to help Claire, he is met with fierce opposition from Roland King who assaults him and advises he stay away from her. Roland is part of the protective core that contains Claire’s lifestyle, and is also a crucial part of the high-rolling economy of the city (all of Claire’s clients are corporate executives).

With a single-tone piano score that recalls Hitchcock, and camera angles that always frame the action upright, the anxiety lived by the characters is very palpable, making for a suspenseful mystery to which there is no satisfying payoff. Kerrigan’s interest seems to lie more in the depiction of a closed-in world and the inability of his characters to escape its limits. Katrin Cartlidge’s performance as Claire has something of the almost robotic, but with a deep-seated humanity very present that never learned to completely surface.

Kerrigan’s films seem to be mostly about communication, and the lack of it. Personal experiences are magnified to an ultra realistic level and touch on the deepest kind of feelings that usually remain unsaid. It is a horrifying vision of the self, but also a provocative statement, and a cautionary tale against closed-mindedness, judgement, and stereotype.

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Categories: female leads, Notes

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