The story of Christine Chubbuck is one that a lot of people will most likely already be aware of, but many will probably know very little beyond the most basic of facts: that she was a TV presenter who committed suicide live on television in the seventies. Antonio Campos’ new film about Chubbuck, called simply Christine, may not exactly explain why she did what she did – these things are always ultimately unknowable – but it is nonetheless a rich character study that expertly puts the central character’s emotional state at the forefront of every cinematic choice. Inviting us in, helping us to try to not necessarily understand, but at least see the circumstances surrounding her choice.
For a film with such a bleak story – we know from the opening minute where Christine is ultimately heading – the first half an hour or so of Christine is a surprisingly upbeat experience, as Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich introduce us to Christine (Rebecca Hall), those that work around her at the television studio in Sarasota, and the wonderfully tactile intricacies of television production in the early seventies.
There is more than a little fetishism for a bygone era in Christine, with somewhat romanticised images of projectors being laced up and film being cut by hand in the thick of live television production, but for the most part this sort of lingering on the tech in early scenes helps to acclimatise us to a very different period in time. The production design and costuming is absolutely spot on too, evoking the era incredibly well without ever feeling over the top or distracting. This is all aided by Joe Anderson’s subtle, desaturated and diffused approach to the cinematography, that gives the whole film a sort of beige, lived-in feel.
Also crucial to this temporal specificity is the way in which Christine is treated, as a woman and as someone who has a history of mental illness. We sadly live in a world in which sexism and stigmatisation of mental illness are still rife, but the challenges Christine faces are even tougher. Shilowich’s script for Christine pulls in a number of factors that negatively affects Christine’s life and career – something she cares very deeply about – and it is deeply uncomfortable to watch her be belittled and/or ignored by her boss, Michael (Tracey Letts). The frustration she experiences comes out of the screen and her struggle to simply be a woman, to be a presenter, to be a person, is something that you end up feeling very deeply.
Hall is at her career best here, with a performance that has to carry so much weight in almost every second that she is on screen. When Hall is talking we can easily read between the lines of the dialogue, and when silent we can intuit so much, thanks to the way in which she uses her body and conveys subtleties through the emotion in her face.
Christine is a film that relies on peeling back the layers of a character, but it is not a film that has the answers. And it is in this area that the film becomes somewhat frustrating in its final moments. Whilst Campos and co. seem keen to embrace the unknowable at first, they then seem to get lost in wrapping elements up. Christine will perhaps offer too few answers for those who seek tidy narratives at the cinema, and for those willing to engage with something more challenging, Christine is in someways just a little too conventional and unambiguous. Ultimately though, Christine is a well made and fascinating film, but also one that sadly stumbles far too greatly in its final scenes.