Robert Greene’s Actress convincingly reconciles private passion with public desire by suggesting that, for women in particular, the 21st-century limelight is always on, no matter the setting or venue. The film chronicles Brandy Burre, an actress who retired after becoming pregnant in 2006; most famously, she appeared as Theresa D’Agostino in 15 episodes of The Wire. As the film opens, Burre is performing the banal duties of a stay-at-home mom, slumping around, picking up toys, putting away board games, and reassuring one of her children, who complains of a headache, that “cereal will heal your brain.” Greene shoots these scenes on low-grade digital video, almost mimicking the visual fuzziness of pre-digital home videos. The film earns its Warholian title through these scenes, which linger on the domestic passions Burre seeks now that she has stepped away from acting. Sitting and speaking about her new life as a mom, she points to her children as her new “creative outlet.” And almost as if trying to convince herself, she says it a second time.
However, Greene’s camera isn’t confined to quiet moments of quotidian behavior; in a bravura sequence, Burre showers in slow motion, accompanied by an operatic song that renders grandiose what has previously been tranquil. Stepping out of the shower and into the hall, still in slow motion, Burre is handed a white, plastic coat hanger by one of her children, which she foists in the air. The camera tilts to follow her movement and homes in on a close-up of the hanger, which Burre raises in equal parts elation and despair. If this is her creative outlet, she must repurpose the domestic space into a stage, something Greene is acutely aware of throughout this sequence and much of the film.
Perhaps the film’s most compelling scene comes as Burre flips through different episodes of The Wire, explaining her character’s role to her mother. In changing from disc to disc and speaking of what’s on screen as if a distant, unreclaimable moment of artistic prowess, one can’t help but be reminded of This Is Not a Film, when director Jafar Panahi, under house arrest, cycles through his films, switching discs and narrating, realizing that he will likely never be able to create so freely again. In these moments, art becomes personal home video, replete with nostalgia for moments in time that can only be glimpsed by representation; of course, these representations mask what happens off screen—mainly, the sustaining intensities of the artists involved.
The final portion of the film details Burre’s attempt to make a comeback, the results of which won’t be spoiled here. Nevertheless, Greene ultimately makes too little of his primary conceit: a documentary about an actress. The layers of potential representation here should be apparent enough, but when Burre becomes teary-eyed and self-absorbed throughout these sequences, Greene’s approach underwhelms, particularly because it’s clear that Burre’s on-screen pleas might not be genuine at all, but the emotional appeals of a gifted thespian. Perhaps that’s ultimately Greene’s point: the line separating a put-on and genuine revelation within an era of ubiquitous performance is not only thin, but nonexistent. If Burre is embellishing for the sake of the film, then she’s what she says she is: an actress. And in Actress, it’s ultimately unclear how one would begin to separate the two. In this case, a lack of clarity is illuminating.