Appellate Judge Dan Mancini never realized that Chief Miles O'Brien was such a bastard.
"She was born a whore. She'll die a whore."—Roland Cain
Claire Dolan (Katrin Cartlidge, From Hell) is a high-priced call girl, but not by choice. She's on the hook to a restaurateur/gangster named Roland Cain (Colm Meaney, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) who seethes with menace between a calm and kind surface. Both Claire and Cain are Irish transplants, living in the steel, stone, and glass canyons of Manhattan. When Claire's mother dies of a brain tumor, she hides it from Cain for reasons that aren't immediately clear. She tries leaving prostitution to become a hairdresser but can't escape her obligations. When her cab driver boyfriend, Elton Garrett (Vincent D'Onofrio, Men in Black), discovers her secret life, he tries to help her out of debt. Unfortunately, emotional attachments are tenuous in Claire's world. She soon enough discovers that self-reliance is her only hope, but not before becoming pregnant with Elton's baby.
The second picture by indie filmmaker Lodge H. Kerrigan (Clean, Shaven), Claire Dolan demands that a viewer acclimate to its rhythms. For the first ten minutes or so, I thought I was watching a cheap, straight-to-video erotic thriller pretending to be an art film. It seemed to have the same ugly mix of wooden acting and tawdry sex one can dial up during late night and early morning hours on Cinemax. But a funny thing happened. Claire Dolan began to grow on me. Its flat affect was intentional, the performances of its actors excellent.
The late Katrin Cartlidge is particularly impressive in the title role. Her tight, angular beauty appears custom-built for the role of Dolan, a woman who is pitiful in her acts of sexual aggression, careening through life with a white-knuckle grip on her own sanity. There's an animal ferocity about the woman that emerges from the picture's themes of exposure and paranoia. Dolan behaves as though she's always being watched, trailed, threatened. Kerrigan—as noted by Michael Atkinson in his insightful liner notes—frames her in bare windows, and knits his cityscape together with numerous shots of Manhattan's mostly glass skyscrapers. One feels that Dolan's actions are always exposed to the eyes of the watching city, to strangers. Indeed, the men of the film are uniformly predators. And Dolan acts like prey: Her eyes constantly dart toward the spaces off screen, as though she's expecting to be attacked at any time. Kerrigan's careful visual and thematic construction results in a contradiction of sorts: a smothering claustrophobia and sense of dread in an environment replete with sunny windows.
Above all, the picture is a meditation on the soul-deadening consequences of sexual exploitation. Though made by a man, it's almost a feminist rumination on capitalism as the ultimate weapon of male sexual aggression. The sex scenes are frequent and graphic, but not particularly explicit. Dolan throws herself into her liaisons with a voraciousness that suggests she's trying to use her body to shield her wounded soul, or to somehow damage the men who victimize her. Kerrigan walks a very fine line in the construction of these sequences, but does so with much success. They're controlled, restrained, full of sublimated emotion, and genuinely erotic. Dolan's sexual demeanor is a weird mixture of boredom, humiliation, professionalism, crass manipulation, and honest-to-goodness pleasure. The scenes are both depressing and, in an odd way, hot.
Cain (excellently played by Colm Meaney) is the most menacing and two-faced of all of the characters. Yet he is the one man in the film with whom Dolan has no sexual relationship. Their connection is purely business—the power of the almighty dollar is the true engine of Dolan's sexual degradation. Garrett is Cain's opposite number, the one man whose sexual connection to Dolan is tender, and not an exchange of goods and services—or so it would seem. The picture's great gut-punch to both Claire Dolan and its audience is the revelation that Cain and Garrett aren't as different as we'd assumed. As a matter of fact, they're much alike. The entwining of sex, money, and power is a fundamental flaw of men's souls. And women suffer the consequences of that flaw.
The DVD transfer is mostly clean with accurate colors. Unfortunately, it's marred by excessive edge enhancement—a common flaw of New Yorker releases. A few of the scenes even manage to be slightly soft and edgy. I'm not sure how, but they do. The stereo audio is clean, and perfectly suitable for the low-budget source.
Supplements include a nine-minute audio introduction by Kent Jones, Associate Director of Programming for the Film Society of Lincoln Center. His talk is set to a slideshow of still images from the film. It's a solid piece of analysis, though Jones's comparisons of the film to the works of Mamet and Pinter are a little overblown. The only other extra on the disc is a trailer for the film.
A fold-out insert inside the case contains an interview with Cartlidge (who died tragically and unexpectedly of complications from pneumonia in 2002) conducted by critic Prairie Miller, and a brief essay called "Claire Dolan: Sex, Nausea and One-Way Mirrors" by Village Voice film critic Michael Atkinson.
Claire Dolan is exactly what Lodge Kerrigan intended it to be: a cold, depressing, nihilistic little indie art film. If you're inclined to curl up with cold, depressing, nihilistic little indie art films, give it a spin.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Audio Introduction by Kent Jones
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