Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell’s Claire in Motion hinges on issues of perspective. After the disappearance of her husband, Paul (Chris Beetem), Ohio math professor Claire Hunger (Betsy Brandt) struggles to accept the possibility of his death, and learns that he lived a fulfilling creative life outside of her presence. The film uses this revelation to disrupt Claire’s life of routine and certainty, and to force her to reinvestigate her marriage. Was Paul’s vanishing a freak act of nature (he goes missing on a solo multi-day hike) or had she already lost him to his newfound passions long before?
With its droning ambient soundtrack and blurry shots of stringed lights, Claire in Motion traffics wholeheartedly in Amerindie clichés, using a lack of forward motion and a wealth of tight close-ups to connote emotional subtlety as it buckles under the weight of its symbolism. Professor Hunger is flummoxed by the artistic yearning expressed in her husband’s secret life, particularly as most of these revelations are delivered by an attractive MFA student, Allison (Anna Margaret Hollyman). Allison hosts bonfires where she and her fellow students liberate themselves by throwing their artworks over a cliff, and casually tells Claire that her work is “contesting the hierarchy of pleasure.”
The film uses its academic milieu to give an air of gravity to Paul’s desires; his unruly sculptures of wire, twine, and bird feathers and sketches of men in space stand in for all that Claire can never know about him. (Are those men falling or flying?) Brandt finds a range of facial expressions to convey hues of grief and frustration (her pallid skin tone seems to absorb her surroundings, heightening Claire’s withdrawal), but the film makes little effort to convey how her mathematical mind actually functions. Instead, Claire is placed in opposition to more sensual characters—like her ever-knitting son, Connor (Zev Haworth)—who, in the film’s logic, are more nuanced and enlightened.
Meanwhile, this lone rational mind continues to search for answers, returning to the woods where her husband went missing and grilling Allison about Paul’s potential for infidelity. Despite its silly inevitability, this plot point yields the film’s most productive moments. It’s clear that Claire believes she’s trapped in a domestic thriller, but the film’s supporting characters try to convince her that she’s locked in some sort of an existential, Antonioniesque state of self-exploration. A brief bottoming out set in the world’s most Lynchian college bar attempts to persuade the viewer that Claire can reset her perspective, but it remains frustrating that Claire in Motion never makes a philosophical case for its protagonist. By constantly and airily urging Claire to liberate herself from her grief, the film can’t help but undercut it.