Katrin Cartlidge: The Working Actress

When Katrin Cartlidge died suddenly in September 2002, the world lost one of its most adventurous, erudite character actresses. She specialized in creating noiseless women on the fringe, loners, drifters, working class women, professionals, low-lifes, women of distinction, and everything in between for a handful of the most visionary directors of our time, Lodge Kerrigan, Mike Leigh and Lars Von Trier among them. She was the very definition of a “working actress”.

During the time of year where summer’s hot light fades and I prepare myself to run a gamut of international film festivals, bearing witness to new, exhilarating performances from an array of talented women, I am reminded of Cartlidge’s immeasurable contribution to the art of film acting. Her fearless ability to remain at the flashpoint of cinema’s great revolutions around the world, and her ability to virtually disappear into the skins of characters are among the traits she will be most remembered for. Her fierce commitment to furthering the causes of socially just, inspiring movements in cinema, combined with a rare friendliness, openness and gentility, conquered the hearts of those she collaborated with.

The Katrin Cartlidge Foundation was set up by her family, friends, and esteemed co-workers such as Leigh, for whom she made three films (Naked, Career Girls, and Topsy-Turvy), and Breaking the Waves’ Von Trier, Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard and Jean Marc Barr. Following her unexpected passing, the group organized an award, according to the website, “to encourage, in the form in the form of an annual bursary awarded to a new creative voice in cinema, the independence, singularity and integrity of spirit that Katrin Cartlidge powerfully embraced and exemplified in her own lifetime.”

Von Trier dedicated his 2003 film Dogville, in which Cartlidge was scheduled to play the pivotal role of Vera (eventually played by Patricia Clarkson), to the actress, and at the time of her death she was researching the role of Marianne in Alejandro Gonzales Inaritu’s 21 Grams. The trajectory of her career seemed to be pointing decidedly upwards towards more and more artistic endeavors with some of the most prominent modern film directors when she was suddenly, shockingly taken away.

With this summer’s Criterion release of the beautifully cyclical Before the Rain, I felt it was appropriate to revisit choice selections from the actresses’ austere filmography. As I sat reflecting on the firebrand work of this incredibly low-key performer, I began to wonder who the “Katrin Cartlidges” of today were and came to the disturbing realization that there are very few who even approach this kind of blissful anonymity – Laura Dern and Jennifer Jason Leigh come to mind immediately for their consistently adventurous spirits, and come close, but again, Dern and Leigh are still a major, recognizable stars, where someone like Cartlidge could just as easily be on the Croisette at Cannes one moment and anonymously navigating the streets of London the next.

In the States, especially, I think that its impossible for actresses to be given such autonomy with their careers and their personas; or it is, at the very least, extremely difficult to remain mysterious given the scrutiny of tabloids and gossip columns. It seems that there can be no real “Katrin Cartlidges” working today, mainly, though, because she is irreplaceable. I can’t think of a single performance in the years following Cartlidge’s death that even comes close to capturing the kind of rawness and danger that the actress so regularly trafficked in. Her signature was making the real fascinating; whether it was through silence, grotesquerie, fury or intelligence (or, at times, lack of intelligence), Cartlidge was not afraid to upturn the dark corners of the women she portrayed and was not one to wallow in the shallow waters of vanity.

For me, these qualities culminate in her defining performance in Lodge Kerrigan’s mournfully intense Claire Dolan. The film focuses exclusively on Cartlidge as a leading lady, albeit one of the most deliberately aloof, elusive, and mazily entrancing I have seen anchor a film.

Claire is a high priced call girl who decides to leave her pimp for a life of anonymity and motherhood in the wake of her own mother’s death. The gorgeously symmetrical opening montage of architectural elements in an anemically de-saturated New York City echoes the metaphysical stalemate the title character has entered into in her professional life: she is weathered by the repetition of being a prostitute. Though she is very good at her job, she seeks something to break the monotony. The weariness flows across the actresses’ geometrically-pleasant face, an unparalleled blank slate used in a mirror-like effect to reflect and react to what is put in front of it, seems real.

Like in Lodge Kerrigan’s other haunting films (notably the harrowing Clean, Shaven) the director is able to force the viewer into a meditative world very far removed from their usual planes of existence. These are ascetic worlds of minimalist beauty and horror that happen to be right under their noses, in the most ordinary places. The film hinges on the bravura performance of Cartlidge, gliding serenely through the sterile hotels and offices which she entertains her clients in and forces us to feel helpless as we watch what feels like a documentary. Claire doesn’t provoke empathy, per se, but she is a captivating, tragic figure that demands our attention by employing a disquieting silence rather than histrionics.

We have all been subjected to the hooker archetype in film, ad nauseum. We have, in fact, been besieged by it. As viewers, we are often inundated by cartoon fantasies of “Pretty Women” getting their millionaire in the end or functioning as the object of a man’s desire. These hookers generally have hearts of gold (Giulieta Masina in Nights of Cabiria), sometimes they awkwardly sing, clown around, or dance (Shirley MacLaine in Irma La Douce), often times they get beat up and pay the ultimate price for their altruistic nature (Kathy Baker in Street Smart), and almost all of the time they are damaged until they find love and/or meaning through the tutelage of the “right” guy (Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas).

Or they are just damaged, period (Sharon Stone in Casino). They can sometimes also be unclassifiably shrill and unintentionally hilarious at the same time (Barbra Streisand’s epically dense portrait of a high-priced Manhattan hooker in Nuts immediately comes to mind). According to culture-at-large, prostitutes (and actresses who play them) are to be rewarded with happily ever after lives and Oscar nominations.

Not so with Cartlidge’s lady of the night. In the hands of this ardent performer, Claire is part Shakespearean tragedienne, part deliciously vague Hitchcockian mannequin in distress; the archetype is shattered. This is a level of intensity that scares off traditionalists. Whether it is receiving the news that her mother has died while in the bathroom of a hotel, after turning a trick, or while being stalked on the street by thugs who (presumably) want to rape her, Cartlidge, with her fascinating face that can convey more in a minute than most Hollywood starlets can with an entire film, never gives us the expected maudlin portrait. Claire is hardnosed and unsentimental and is never ruled by the actresses’ egotism.

We often talk of “necessary” sex scenes and nudity in films, and here they are pivotal to the character. Mostly, the sex comes off as terribly unsexy, almost too raw. Yet, when juxtaposed with scenes of romance opposite co-star Vincent D’Onofrio (rather than the johns as in previous scenes), there is a feeling of palpable, sensual chemistry that feels new and exciting.

This is a deliberate portrait of physicality that most actresses would probably not even read past the first few pages, let alone commit to body and soul. Watching Cartlidge navigate this character with such an extremely contrasted sense of mysteriousness and intimacy is a voyeuristic thrill, and often, at times tough to watch, but ultimately this is what acting is about: pulling off a chameleonic disappearing act, divorcing the performer from the character. Taking risks. Really becoming another woman. Building her from the inside out, without relying on the tired preconceptions. This is a completely original creation, a woman that has never been seen onscreen before. You won’t be seeing anything like that from Julia Roberts any time soon, I can guarantee you that.

From Searching for Debra Winger

Cartlidge was not a traditional leading lady, by any means, and while her leading parts were outnumbered by her supporting roles, one of her most high profile, most affecting turns comes in Von Trier’s masterful Breaking the Waves, a film that redefined independent cinema in the ’90s.

The wedding that begins the film is a celebration of liberty for the film’s protagonist Bess MacNeill (Emily Watson), yet is anything but joyous for the residents of the remote, ultra-conservative Scottish village where she has spent her troubled life. It is a trifling formality; but “formality” is something these coastal Scots do exceedingly well. They thrive on it, in fact. The townspeople are unyielding in their devotion to God and order. They don’t take kindly to “outsiders” invading their turf, and the rebellious Bess, who has a history of mental illness and an affinity for glam rock, has fallen passionately in love with Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), an oil rigger from a faraway town, much to the consternation of her widowed nurse sister-in law Dodo (Cartlidge).

Director: Lodge Kerrigan
Film: Claire Dolan
Cast: Katrin Cartlidge, Vincent D’Onofrio, Colm Meaney, Patrick Husted, Muriel Maida
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1998
Distributor: New Yorker
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/c/clairedolan.jpg

Director: Lars von Trier
Film: Breaking the Waves
Studio: Argus Film Produktie
Cast: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1996
Distributor: Artisan Home Video
US Release Date: 1996-11-13 (Limited release)
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/b/breaking_the_waves.jpg

As an act of God, with whom the pious Bess shares a running dialogue (Watson chillingly provides both voices), cruelly tears Jan away from Bess in the infancy of their relationship, the young woman begins to unravel as the only lover she has known is wrested away from their marital bed. Until Jan (presumably permanently impaired), who is fully endorsed by “God”, comes up with a solution to end her misery: Bess must go out and perform sex acts with strange men to ensure his “recovery”.

Von Trier takes the simple love story and pushes it into daring, exploratory realms by actually having each of Bess’ sexual humiliations correlate with a stage of Jan’s recovery. Bess thinks that what she is doing, that having faith and trusting her husband and her God, is saving a life and saving a marriage. She is determined to do whatever it takes to get Jan back. She is a sacrificial lamb. Her body is the ultimate offering to God, who piteously allows her to go farther and farther into oblivion as Jan gets better and better. Cartlidge’s sensible, protective Dodo is there every step of the way to try and reason with her. She is an archangel to Bess’ fallen saint.

The director has been widely accused of propagating a misogynist ideal of romance and love where the woman must make the ultimate sacrifices in order for the man to go on. Many critics viewed his character as a skewed, bitter comment on what he must think of women in real life. Von Trier is accused of coaxing his actresses (Bjork and Nicole Kidman among them) with maliciousness, and of being supremely emotionally manipulative to get what he needs from his performers. Others, like Cartlidge, thrive on this sort of opportunity and opposition.

While it at first glance Breaking the Waves could be read as a feminist’s nightmare, the claims that Von Trier’s female characters, particularly Bess, are in some way not capable of making their own decisions is preposterous. Dodo tells Bess that a woman “has to have a mind of her own” and it seems that sheer instinct alone propels Bess to the tragic climax of the film, but throughout, she remains clearly in control of her decisions. Because she is a woman, the popular assumption is that she must not be able to make these decisions for herself, and that’s where Von Trier can fairly claim to be re-inventing the feminist perspective, with a powerful female-driven allegorical narrative that leads to a virtual transfiguration.

In addition to Watson setting a new dramatic standard, and Skarsgard deconstructing the traditional romantic leading man, there is the inspirational performance of Cartlidge as Dodo, equally important in the triad of key performances in the film. While Cartlige’s turn is more inward, its sheer power is on par with Watson’s in every way. When it came to recognition during the Breaking the Waves 96 awards season juggernaut, which swept along the film, Von Trier and Watson’s performance, Cartlidge’s quiet fury was perhaps a little bit unfairly overshadowed by Watson’s bravura leading turn.

Here she is another “outsider” who is left behind, after Bess’ brother dies, in a place she really doesn’t understand. Her raison d’atre is to fiercely protect the naïve Bess, and her lioness-like instincts also force her to identify with fellow “outsider” Jan. She is the bridge between the two worlds. Cartlidge’s marvelously-nuanced take on another tired filmic archetype, “the spinster” is a no-frills, stern, and innovative exercise in character acting, and again, she explores the soul of a woman who hadn’t yet been seen onscreen previously, as she did as Claire Dolan.

In the end, at a funeral by the sea, it is Cartlidge’s bereft Dodo who is the one to give the most devastating dressing-down of everyone’s abhorrent behavior towards Bess: “Not one of you has the right to consign Bess to hell,” she fumes to the church elders who think the sinful Bess got what she deserved. Dodo, in effect, restores the balance of fairness and “order” once again to the town long after Bess is gone.

The concept of “balance” flows through her work in 1994’s Before the Rain (and later, in 01’s No Man’s Land), where Cartlidge fixes herself squarely in the middle of the ravages of Eastern European genocide and war, again, putting her money where her mouth was and making films that highlighted the kind of bold, cutting edge spirit of filmmaking that she would become so famously associated with. Her work in these maverick films, which highlight very different scenarios in the Balkan conflicts of the era, is but a cog in the overall mechanics of the directorial visions, but her presence lends a weighty feeling of truth and honesty to the sprawling ruminations on senseless carnage, war (a topic she presciently and preemptively tackled before it came into vogue as a cause celebre post-9/11), the media, risk-taking, and humanity.

Then, speaking of humanity, there was a brief glimpse of the private side of Cartlidge onscreen, appearing for an all-too-brief segment of actress/director Rosanna Arquette’s Searching for Debra Winger. The film celebrates women of distinction in film and acting, and, fittingly, Cartlidge, shares the screen with Katrin Cartlidge Foundation patron and friend Charlotte Rampling. She is a graceful slip of a woman who seems like a shrinking violet at first, but when discussing the role of women in film and where she fit in, you can practically see her face lighting up.

“We were talking about passion, earlier on, as being the main reason for doing…anything. And without it, you couldn’t get up in the morning. All you can do is be passionate about what you do. And none of us, I certainly am certainly not Snow White, you know, I’ve done a few things to pay my rent, which I don’t wholeheartedly believe in but I hate doing it. I hate it. But as far as humanly possible I try not to. I try to do things I feel passionate about, but it’s difficult.”

In another segment of the film, Martha Plimpton (who, when I thought it over, really is a similarly chameleonic performer), breaks it down even further: “I believe in acting. I believe in that. Very strongly. In telling stories. I am so tired of the ‘not enough strong women’ thing. I don’t give a fuck about ‘strong women’; I just want to see characters. I don’t care if they’re ‘strong’, I don’t care if they’re righteous, I don’t care if they’re religious, I don’t care if they’re pure, I don’t care if they’re role models. I don’t care about any of that shit. I want to see characters.

This sort of maverick spirit is what penetrates Cartlidge’s filmography, who created the kind of characters other real people wanted to see, not the fictitious ideals propagated by studio heads or the teenage male ticket buying majority. Since her death, there has been a definite void in this niche, but I remain hopeful that somewhere an aspiring actor will see her remarkable oeuvre, become inspired and bravely follow suit. Fortunately, until that happens, connoisseurs of superlative acting will have these performances to hold them over.

From Breaking the Waves