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Sundance 2016 Review: Christine

No clear signs point to the sudden fascination of the Christine Chubbuck story. The reporter barely made headlines in 1974 when she shot herself during her Florida TV-station’s live broadcast. In what is being described as a complete coincidence, Chubbuck holds the focus of not one, but two films at this year’s festival. Antonio Campos’ Christine takes the standard fiction approach, tracking Chubbuck’s life in the weeks leading up to her suicide.

The film introduces us to Christine (Rebecca Hall) as a troubled woman. Living in her mother’s (J. Smith Cameron) apartment in a bedroom decorated like that of a little girl, it is immediately evident that something is not quite right. She goes to work each day with the hope that her boss Michael (Tracy Letts) will let her lead with a powerful story, but is continually sidelined with frivolous community reports. While Christine seeks to uncover profundity in Sarasota, Florida, she will have to be content doing interviews with townsfolk over a vase of fake flowers until she can find a story that “bleeds”. Her disappointments at work are met by her equally frustrating love life. After being told that she has a uterus infection and will not be able to get pregnant for much longer, Christine finally decides to pursue “Gorgeous George” (Michael C. Hall), who does not meet her awkward advances as desired.

Christine seems to complete a trilogy of sorts for Campos, whose Afterschool and Simon Killer also featured protagonists building to self-induced tragedy. While the glacial descent into madness remains constant through the three films, Christine stands out as an anomaly. Less avant-garde, Campos’ latest is the most accessible of the three and seems to rely more on the plot tropes found in popular biopics. That being said, Campus approaches the character with a welcome coldness, making her unavoidably difficult to identify with. A fitting method to screening the life of a woman who few understood.

There is no doubt that Hall gives the best performance of her career so far. The actress adapts posture and voice, donning a pair of fake eyebrows that make her appear somewhat alien. One cannot help but acknowledge a certain stagey quality in the performance though, as if it is evident that Hall is trying just a little bit harder than the other actors on screen. So, while it is undeniably a strong performance, it does feel just a little bit out of place.

Any dramatized version of Chubbuck’s life is problematic in a sense. She was a woman who went to drastic lengths to combat and comment on violence on screen, and yet a film that would faithfully tell her story would commit the very act that Chubbuck was against. Knowing where Chubbuck’s story ends, part of the thrill of Christine comes from the anticipation of how Campos and co. will ultimately pull it off. Audiences looking for a grand and grotesque finally will have their expectations met, yet viewers who do some research after seeing the film will be unsettled to know that Campus has stepped up the gore a notch, making Christine’s death even more violent in this dramatization than it was in real life.

Christine perhaps is not as subtle as it should be, and its awkward pacing may turn off some viewers, yet the effort is a mostly strong one. Campos takes the daunting task of crafting a character whose real life was a mystery, projecting qualities on screen that one can only imagine Chubbuck would assume. While it is not hard to point out the moments of the film that fail to stir, it is an admirable effort nonetheless, grounded by an award-worth performance.

[star v=35]

Matt Hoffman

Matthew Hoffman is a Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films and actresses over the age of 50; including but not limited to: Isabelle Huppert, Meryl Streep, and Jacki Weaver.