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.
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.
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.