With each documentary one encounters, one is viewing exactly what the filmmaker intends for you to view. There’s an artifice to the reality that is being presented and it’s something that, however impressive the film may be, is impossible to deny. But where most purport to be delivering nothing but the truth at all times, Actress doesn’t. Or at least it doesn’t feel like it’s always telling the truth. Nor does it claim to be.
What’s most fascinating about Actress — a film that essentially follows Brandy Burre, who played Theresa D’Agostino on The Wire, in her day to day life — is how much of her performance and how much of the film feels like your typical fictional work of art. Much has been written about the ways documentaries should challenge the audience, specifically by being more than simply talking heads or facts being presented to the viewer with no flow. And Robert Greene, a critic and a man with plenty of films under his belt at this point, is well-aware of this fact.
Much of Actress concerns Burre treating the camera as almost a video diary, with Greene never uttering a word to her as she muses and, at times, performs for the camera. She sings, she curls her hair, she puts on make-up, she washes dishes, she cuts vegetables, and goes through the motions of life as though she’s preparing for a chance to star in Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Realistically, these are all things Burre would naturally do, and yet, their presentation suggests otherwise. As Burre speaks about how individuals in families all play their strange roles in the game of life (mother and breadwinner, for instance) the emphasis of artifice becomes greater. But it’s not just the role of mother she’s playing, or the role of mourning wife going through a separation; she’s an actress longing to embody the role of an actress and finding it hard to fall back into that place.
“I started identifying too much with the outside persona and I started believing the bullshit,” she explains at one point about why she quit in the first place, and it’s a line that makes one question just how much we’re seeing of the real Brandy Burre instead of the character Brandy Burre. They’re undeniably two different human beings, neither one of which comes across as particularly sympathetic because of her commitment to the scenes and to the notion of struggling actress. Her husband Tim, who is leaving her during the film, is more of a shadow in the distance who never interacts with the camera. He’s the kind of ghost a person becomes when a house no longer feels like a home for a couple, and it’s easy to see how many viewers might fault her for her marital issues or find his lack of presence something that Greene should be faulted for (just look at Mike D’Angelo’s Letterboxd review).
But, again, it’s impossible to tell where Real Brandy and Actress Brandy begins and ends, thus making her a fascinating character, whether or not this is really who she is. And that’s what Greene is clearly focused on as a filmmaker, so much so that no scene with supporting characters give insight into who they are (except that her kids are fond of Phineas and Ferb). “Innocent looking with the ability to play angry or aggressive,” she reads while holding a wine glass and ignoring her children. She’s sick of dealing with their requests to get the video player working. Or is she? Is she just shifting persona for the camera in front of her, knowing full-well that this documentary — or should we call it a character study? — will become the demo reel she needs to get back into the acting world? Is her repetition of the line “I moved to Beacon. I’m not acting. So this is my creative outlet,” to the camera a nudging elbow to the side reminding one that everything they witness from then on might just be a lie because she is, in fact, acting? These aren’t questions I as a viewer or critic am prepared to answer; nor do I think need to be answered, because performance, much like life, is not about easy revelations.
“I have to come to terms with the fact that I don’t get the nice girl roles,” she dramatically states, further purporting the role of tragic, almost self-centered, mother and wife. Even in the documentary of her life, she doesn’t get the nice girl role. And Robert Greene does nothing to make the viewer pick one side or another, often choosing to use style to make both Real Brandy and Actress Brandy figures that deserve both sympathy and criticism. This shows through the way he strings his scenes together; in particular the way he uses dialogue to punctuate scenes rather than using it to introduce them. Most scenes look and feel like a documentary, with a grainy low-budget feel and plenty of that unobtrusive handheld camerawork that comes with the vérité filmmaking territory.
And Greene seems dedicated to that notion through and through; always a presence in the room, sometimes to the point of getting shots that might seem unattainable in a situation where the subject was not fully committed to the role being played. One must wonder how many times an individual has been shot while bathing or showering in a documentary, an image commonly found in tragic moments of introspection in fiction films. A scene where Burre ties her shoe while waiting for the metro and it wooshes past her — the sound of it overwhelming, face shifting to terror at its nearness, hair flowing wildly under a cap at the intensity — feels like a sequence straight out of a thriller. Where a moment like this, among many others, only relies on diegetic sound, the artificiality is rather beautifully reinforced in moments when Greene chooses to overstylize the film with a score that’s both comforting and unsettling, as well as shots one might find in your typical arthouse drama. And as the credits roll, a sequence of scenes entirely composed of these gorgeous commercial-like shots of Burre and her surroundings, the mystery of who Brandy Burre really is hasn’t been solved. But that’s the beauty of what Robert Greene has done with Actress. It’s a film that lingers long after, leaving one to wonder whether every ounce of vulnerability was real or not, and if that even actually matters in the long run.
Directed by Robert Greene; starring Brandy Burre; 86 minutes.
Actress is available for purchase on DVD and to stream on Fandor and Netflix.