TIFF16: Christine

I am not sure what to make of Christine.

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After watching it tonight at TIFF16, my first thought was that I cannot take it objectively.  Due to my own struggles with depression, the film felt personal.  The screening was followed by a Q&A with director, writer, producers, and star Rebecca Hall.  Given my feelings of being too close to the subject matter, I was eager to hear more from the filmmakers; however, both writer and director referenced their own mental health struggles as jumping off points for understanding  Christine Chubbuck, the journalist who killed herself on air who the film focuses one.  That is to say, they were also not quite objective, or at least did not provide me with an objective view I could latch on to. 

I looked up reviews of the film, which are for the most part positive.  Three things stand out: the successes of the 1970s mise-en-scène, the sound design, and Hall’s performance as Chubbuck.   I would agree on all three counts.  I also liked the look at workplace misogyny in Chubbuck’s situation, as well as her complex characterisation as a woman who was passionate about her job and extremely ambitious despite her setbacks.  Hall portrays her drive as well as her frustrations and anxieties extremely well.  But here again I lose objectivity.  I am a person who values independence and solitude, so the depiction I saw of Christine did not read to me as ‘lonely,’ despite it, I think, meaning to be.  And because I cannot think of a more flattering way to put it, I am someone who has been described as cold.  The reviews I read reference Christine’s cold, ‘frosty’ personality, yet this is not something I noticed at all in the film.  In fact, having read about Chubbuck beforehand, I knew that she had been described as difficult to get along with, standoffish, and cold.  Therefore I went into the film expecting this characterisation; instead I found her to be fairly open and likeable though often stressed and easily withdrawn, perhaps even a bit nervous.  So again: is it that I am cold that I could not see Christine’s coldness and the fault in this?

In this way, I saw Christine as not so much a depressed, struggling person, despite her obvious struggles from professional to romantic to medical to familial.  If anything, she seemed well adjusted.  So I don’t know how to take the film.  Is there supposed to be a downward trajectory that I’m missing because I relate too much, or is the banality of her life itself supposed to be a significant element to the narrative of a shocking suicide?  At this point, it is impossible to tell.  Perhaps after more research I’ll find the answer, or the filmmakers will discuss their intent more deeply in the future.  All I can say right now is that this ambiguity does not really work for me.  It makes me think ‘why?’

Chubbuck’s brother has stated that the film is nothing but the exploitation of a tragedy.  In part, the more I think of it, the more I agree.  The film is extremely upsetting, but does it say anything about the problems of mental illness and its treatment, or about how gender can impact one’s mental health?  Again, my problem is that I’m too close to the issue: I’m a woman with depression.  And this experience is rarely discussed sensitively.  Instead, it is exploited in the tropes or fragile, tragic muses and Ophelia-types, rarely taken seriously.  Suicide is something we still do not properly discuss or deal with, and I think my issue is that while film does not have to say something, when film takes an issue that is already so stigmatized, so exploited, so poorly dealt with in real life, so deadly, can it be used simply to make ‘art’?  That is to say: suicide is a serious problem.  Can it be used to create a role to demonstrate great acting or directing?  Especially when it is a real-life case?

So again, I am too close to the subject matter of Christine to objectively comment on it or appreciate it.  I think it is very well made, and Rebecca Hall’s performance is exceptional.  I think it was also somewhat over-long, and many of the inconsequential news items that Christine was forced to film could have been cut, as the point that she was being underused and her ambitions were not being met was made early on.  I felt that the insertion of historical context was heavy handed, but the elements of mise-en-scène which created the 1970s world were very well done.  The sound design and layering of voices and music was also very effective.  This is what I think of Christine as  film.  But film doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  So I also question why it was made.  Why would someone who cannot relate to Christine’s struggles want to watch them, and would it be enjoyable?  Is the film exploiting a woman who has become known for only her sensational death  by focusing on this death and it’s lead-up, especially when family feels hurt and disrespected?  Does it fall into the category of our enjoyment of beautiful yet tragic women who we can’t save but whose self-destruction we enjoy?  I don’t know.

I think Christine is a well made film; I just don’t know if it should have been made.

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