“Christine can’t shake the bizarre feelings that come with making a largely fictionalized movie about a woman whose fame is derived from her suicide.”
by Ken Bakely
There is footage of reporter Christine Chubbuck’s 1974 on-air suicide – yet it has been locked away, never to be shown. Websites and message boards where users share videos of people dying consider it an unattainable “holy grail.” It’s gained a kind of perverted notoriety, because of the suddenness of the incident itself and how it has not been viewed in person in the four decades since it occurred. Antonio Campos’ Christine walks a fine line here – to provide a portrait of who this woman was and why she did what she did, but to steer clear of the uncomfortable leeriness which surrounds her death. Does it succeed? Rebecca Hall turns in a transformative, wrenching performance in the lead role, and the movie, while unable to avoid a sense of exploitation which inherently exists, is mostly respectful and avoids rampant speculation.
However, the burden of proof is very strongly on the project itself, and why it was considered necessary to make such a film in the first place. Christine is shown as a holdout of “old-school” television journalism, but her ideology is a relic to station manager Michael Nelson (Tracy Letts), who is itching to join the trend of TV news which uses videotape instead of film and lives by the mantra “if it bleeds, it leads.” The irony would be thick if the film failed to be humane. Screenwriter Craig Shilowich takes the admirable root to depict the titular character’s life as a slow buildup to a tragic and avoidable end. Yet Christine never really makes any worthwhile observations on Chubbuck’s life, her problems, or what could have been different. It’s a ride to a known conclusion, one that is unpleasant and proceeded towards with a buzzing self-imposed efficacy.
Could it be called more of an experiment than an actual product? That’s not a proper defense either, as the 119 minute movie is intended to follow a direct narrative structure. In any case, it seems to understand the foundational elements of mental illness, commendably depicting Christine’s psyche as stuck in a hazy unknown, with ink-black depression mixing with the screeching highs and lows of a mood disorder. Campos steers clear of any posthumous, armchair psychiatry, and instead tries his best to keep things focused on the character and the performance.
Hall takes this challenging material and runs with it. Her work is the most obvious, unambiguous positive in this messy film. She occupies Christine with a startling devotion, taking us through each awkward encounter, each failed attempt to connect, each rejection from a misunderstood conversation. This performance is as close as anything else in Christine to approaching tragedy. Yet it’s difficult to say if that’s what Campos’ goal was when it all seems to have been lost within an overlong screenplay and unclear textual motivations.
Christine Chubbuck’s disdain for over-sensationalizing in the media, which she sarcastically criticized one last time before shooting herself in the head on live television, is something that the film agrees with but fails to understand. The problem with media sensationalizing is not that there’s violence, but that there’s uncontextualized luridness. Christine can’t shake the bizarre feelings that come with making a largely fictionalized movie about a woman whose fame is derived from her suicide. But it never feels truly icky or misinformed. Campos undoubtedly works with the best of intentions and Hall’s acting is something to behold. This is a movie whose trouble lies in contexualizing beyond its basic plot points and character inventions. It’s well-dressed, professionally founded, and ready to impress, but that hint of sudden, blatant, primal glowering is mucking around beneath the surface. We see the suicide scene as Christine’s mother (J. Smith-Cameron) watches it on TV. I mean, come on.
As with all reviews I write of films that deal with suicide, I will provide a link to a suicide hotlines website. If you feel you need support or someone to talk to, you can find emergency resources here: http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html