Friday, August 16, 2019

The Loneliness of the Late-Night Call Girl in Alan J. Pakula's Deceptively Chilly Klute

Jane Fonda with Donald Sutherland's Don't Look Now pal
(Alan J. Pakula, USA, 1971, 114 minutes)

"When you're used to being lonely and someone comes in and moves that around, it's kind of scary."
--Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda)

The first time I watched Alan J. Pakula's second feature, Klute, probably on television in generously-edited form, I found it a little too chilly for my taste. I didn't dislike it, necessarily, but I expected a more dynamic performance from Jane Fonda, who had last appeared, quite movingly, in Sydney Pollack's Depression-era downer They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

As struggling actress and more-successful call girl Bree Daniels, she seems considerably older, wiser, and more cynical, and it led to the first of her two Oscars (it seems retrograde, in 2019, to use the term "call girl," but sex worker doesn't seem quite right either; clients really do have to call to book appointments with Bree, a free agent who operates without a pimp).

I don't know if my taste has changed, or if I was paying more attention this time around, but in revisiting the new Criterion Collection edition, I noticed more clearly how form follows function; if anything, a less nuanced performance would've broken Pakula's finely-crafted spell, which benefits immeasurably from Gordon Willis's shadowy cinematography and Michael Small's delicately menacing score (music supervisor Maggie Phillips drew from it for Sam Esmail's Pakula-style Amazon Prime series Homecoming).

There's also a difference between chilly and cool. Klute is a cool film about a cool customer, but it's all a façade. The first in the director's paranoia trilogy with Parallax View and All the President’s Men, it's more of a character study in thriller garb, and Bree’s cool affect is mostly a well-honed act.

Michael Sarrazin and Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
It's also a film about loneliness, something more closely associated with male-dominated pictures. Bree, who lives in a Manhattan walk-up, mentions "friends" to John Klute (Donald Sutherland), the Pennsylvania policeman who questions her about a client who's gone missing, but it's clear they're all in the past. Her current life revolves around her work and her cat (in the interview with Illeana Douglas in the supplemental features, Fonda takes credit for giving Bree a cat).

Except for a frenzied party scene, which doesn't look like much fun, Pakula rarely depicts her socializing, though she doesn't exactly look unhappy as she unwinds at the end of a long day by drinking wine and smoking a joint while reading Linda Goodman's Sun Signs (a very 1971 thing to do).

So, she isn't completely miserable, but she isn't exactly living either. She’s getting by. When she discovers that Klute has been tapping her phone, she's hardly thrilled, but a believable rapport develops between the two. They're like the loners played by Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard in Blake Edwards' Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but with all of the stardust stripped away.

Klute is lonely, too, though the script provides few details about his past, so it's fortunate that Sutherland is sufficiently skilled to breathe life into this sketch of a character, which Pakula whittled down from Andy and David Lewis's screenplay. We're not expected to wonder why he's lonely, and I never did, though I appreciate the fact that he doesn't say he's single; it's just assumed. By joining forces with this small-town cop to figure out what happened to his colleague, Bree finds a friend, a coworker, and a lover. In the process, she lets down her guard, opening her up to all of the messy feelings she's learned to keep at bay. They make it harder for her to do her job and to stay in control, but they--more than Klute--help her to make necessary changes in her life once the central mystery has been solved.

Fonda and Sutherland in Klute's basement flat
Throughout, Pakula takes care not to judge her for her occupation, though there’s a bit of Buñuelian, Belle de Jour-esque fantasy to her claim that tricking is as much of a compulsion as a means to an end. If things were going better for her as an actress or model, wouldn't she leave the life behind? It seems likely, though she doesn't see much demarcation between the two, telling her therapist (an effectively blank Vivian Nathan), "For an hour, I'm the best actress in the world--and the best fuck in the world."

After she and Klute have sex for the first time, Bree assures him she wasn't faking it (even if she didn't come), but one of the pleasures of Klute is that much of the dialogue is open to interpretation, and Fonda's improvised sessions with Nathan inform our impressions of Bree, who claims, "It's easy to manipulate men." Of course, she would tell Klute he made her feel something for once; that doesn't mean it's true, though we're meant to believe it is. Or that she cares enough about his feelings to tell him a lie that isn't attached to a price point. Though he didn't write the script, it's notable that Pakula told Sight & Sound in 1972, "I also thought of being a psychoanalyst." We're fortunate he chose filmmaking, but that doesn't mean he left all psychoanalytic impulses aside, particularly in regards to Klute.

It's a fool's game to judge the films of the past by the standards of today, simply because they emerged from different circumstances, and while I can understand the desire to declare Klute feminist, I don't think that was Pakula's intent. On the night she won the Oscar, even Fonda acknowledged, "I'm not very happy about what the picture is saying to women, which is if you get a good shrink and a good guy everything will turn out alright, and I don't think that's true." I don't either. But nor is it completely untrue, and Klute operates in that ambiguous space. For a genre film made in 1971, it holds up better than I would've expected, and it's certainly not misogynist, but Pakula never forgot that he was making a movie and not a treatise.

As Bree tells her therapist, "I'm beginning to feel. And I'm just so scared." Klute can try to protect her from the guy who's been stalking her, but she's on her own when it comes to her feelings. The context may be feminist, since she isn't a stereotypical damsel in distress, but it's the universality of that confession that gives this low-key thriller more resonance than most.

Klute is out now in a Special Edition Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. Of all the supplemental features, my favorite is the featurette on fashion with Amy Fine Collins, who makes a case for the outfits in the film as something significantly more than just a snapshot of the things women wore in the 1970s--rib-knit turtlenecks, maxi skirts, and chunky necklaces--but as clues to Bree's character that are every bit as revealing as her therapy sessions.

Images: Library of America and The Boston Globe.

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