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‘Actress’ Explores What It Means to Play a Role

Actress allows Brandy Burre (The Wire) the screen space and time to make her own image -- or so it seems.

“Every once in a while, I’d like to be thrown over a chair and made love to. That’s what it’s about.” Brandy Burre is driving as she speaks, on her way from the suburbs to an evening out in the city. The camera is close on her profile, the light around her dimming as the sun sets. She continues, “It’s not that he wouldn’t do that, it’s just there’s so much between us, if he did it, I’d be like, ‘What are you doing? Why?’ So it’s easier just to dream about it with someone else, I guess.”

The headlights of oncoming cars reflect off Burre’s face as the camera cuts to another, closer angle, her face in full as she listens to the radio, which sound expands. It’s the sort of image that connotes her musing, the sort of image you expect to see in a fiction film, richly colored, choreographed and contemplative. And yet this scene appears in Actress, Robert Greene’s documentary about Burre, during a time when her life takes some turns. Like many other moments in the film, this one presses against the conventional boundaries of documentary, presses against your expectations.

The movie is able to press for a number of reasons, in particular the subtle, seductive, and sometimes jarring collaboration between Green and Burre. As she looks back on her family life — she has two young children with her husband Tim Reinke — and also on the acting career she put on pause in order to pursue this life, Burre ponders and also embodies the questions that might come up for anyone who’s made choices, who’s followed a particular path or left behind another. As she thinks through her past and considers new options for a future, including her hopes to return to acting (she’s best known at this point for her role on The Wire, as political campaign fixer Theresa D’Agostino), the film observes and also works with her.

This work features ongoing explorations of what it means to be an actress, to play roles. Burre described her roles — as mother, wife, and actress — even as you see they are both combined and disparate. “We were playing the roles,” she says of her early days of marriage with Reinke, She played “the mom role” while he was immersed in “the breadwinner” role. You see these performances throughout the film, as Burre looks after her kids (one morning, when three-year-old Stella worries that her brain “hurts”, mom efficiently refocuses and reassures her, “Eat cereal, the cereal will heal your brain”) and her home (more than once, she stands over the sink, washing dishes, water rolling her her hands, her gaze unfixed, toward the window before her). Reinke also appears, walking through the kitchen and glancing toward the camera, dressing and playing with Stella and eight-year-old Henry. They’re parents, together and separately. He wins bread, she takes Stella to the park.

“At the beginning,” Burre notes, “We were so busy playing house, it was such a new adventure.” Tears well in her eyes, and a sad piano soundtrack grows in volume. “We just forgot each other, you know.” She remembers that when they married, she was already pregnant with Henry, a time the film makes visible when she and her mother look back on her scenes in The Wire. “They kept pushing back shooting, another month, another month,” she says, as they watch her former self on TV. She was five months pregnant when her final scene was shot, and even as camera angles do their best not to show that, she notes here, “Look how heavy I look!”

From there, she played mom. And now, the rift in her marriage is clear, and though the film doesn’t detail events or dates, Burre’s monologues shift, looking toward an unknowable but possible future. “I can’t wait until we get to the other side,” she says, “Because I don’t feel like we’ve been friends for a long time and I miss being friends with him.”

The sadness she carries is visible, but so are her survival, her deliberation, and her perpetual self-performance. Throughout, Burre appears utterly and exquisitely self-aware, which makes her several moments of apparent confession at once emotionally effective (she’s a fine actress). They also appear to be intelligent, thoughtful glosses on the act of confessing, on the ways self-expression becomes and is interwoven with self-performance. Actress underscores this idea in its elegant framing, its selective lighting, its careful cutting of one scene with another. It also allows Burre the screen space and time to make her own image — or so it seems.

RATING 9 / 10