ir decades of prominence in the visual arts, Elisabeth Subrin makes a self-effacingly effective transition to feature films with clunkily-titled Rotterdam competition premiere A Woman, a Part. Toplining Sons of Anarchy and Mad Men alumna Maggie Siff as Anna, a well-known fortyish actor (not “actress”) stumbling through an existential/professional/mid-life crisis, this is competently handled indie fare which is ultimately much more zeitgeisty than distinctive. Likely to score a respectable amount of further festival bookings plus brief runs in U.S. art houses, it’s chiefly notable for Cara Seymour’s nuanced supporting turn as Anna’s sometime best friend, Kate.
The Englishwoman, with her slightly androgynous appeal and woundedly empathetic mien, forms a missing link in a thespian lineage that includes higher-profile U.K. performers such as Charlotte Rampling, Tilda Swinton and Samantha Morton. Despite making considerable impact in Hotel Rwanda, Gangs of New York, Dancer in the Dark and Adaptation, among others, Seymour has somehow never quite attained the household-name status her talents deserve — just the kind of case which Subrin’s well-regarded Tumblr blog “Who Cares About Actresses?” spotlights.
A theorist, installationist, video-auteur and cultural commentator of considerable reputation, Subrin achieved her biggest breakthrough in 1997 with conceptual short Shulie, which attracted ecstatic praise from respected cinephile critics. Her visual-art projects through the 2000s/10s also garnered praise for their audacity and innovation — making the conventional, even familiar nature of A Woman, a Part all the more puzzling.
Siff copes well with the tricky role of Anna, for years the lead in a “guilty pleasure” television show whose details are kept carefully vague. Recovering from an auto-immune disease, the 44-year-old is increasingly dependent on prescription drugs — no coincidence that Subrin has her picking up her Rx on Norma Desmond’s old haunt, Sunset Blvd. Seemingly without dependents, relations or friends of any real significance, Anna is evidently nearing the end of her tether.
After a heart-to-heart with her long-suffering agent Leslie (Khandi Alexander, flintily sympathethic but sadly underused), Anna impulsively returns to the New York theater-scene where her acting career began some 25 years before. Here she has unfinished business with old colleagues Kate and Isaac (John Ortiz), who are both dealing with issues of their own. “We’re all a mess!” someone exclaims, during a picture which derives its energy from the collision of overlapping neuroses, and whose crux is the convincingly organic, ever-shifting dynamic between Anna and Kate. Isaac has a little less to do, but it’s always a delight to see Ortiz flex acting muscles that he doesn’t often get to deploy in his more lucrative Hollywood outings (including two Fast and Furious sequels).
Subrin’s tackling of this particular subject is nothing if not timely, coming hard on the heels of Robert Greene’s Sundance sensation Kate Plays Christine — itself a companion piece to the writer-director’s 2014 Actress. Alongside such higher-budget outings as David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars and Olivier Assayas‘ Clouds of Sils Maria — and the more daringly conceptual Robin Wright Penn vehicle The Congress — Subrin’s film forms part of an intriguing sub-wave dealing with female actors as they navigate multiple layers of identity and artifice. Widening the gender scope brings in more knockabout examples such as the last two best picture Oscar winners The Artist and Birdman, plus another American independent unveiled at Rotterdam this year, Mike Ott and Nathan Silver’s provocatively edgy Actor Martinez.
The most effective of these projects tend to cleverly blur distinctions between reality and fiction, interweaving text with metatext in the head-spinning tradition of the 2010 Casey Affleck/Joaquin Phoenix collaboration I’m Still Here and arguably the David Lynch/Laura Dern phantasmagoria INLAND EMPIRE. Siff, familiar to small-screen viewers after 79 Sons of Anarchy segments and 15 of Mad Men, doesn’t bring sufficient “baggage” to the part of Anna for such shenanigans to come into play here, however. And Subrin’s stylistic approach is content to operate within established post-mumblecore parameters: hand-held camerawork attempts to breathe vivacity into what are frequently contrived theatrical scenarios; shouty confrontations play out in time-tested shot/reverse-shot fashion.
It doesn’t help that Subrin’s creations exist in such hermetic bubbles, barely interacting with any kind of wider cultural or political realities: when Anna drives in Los Angeles, her car-radio reports news of the European migrant-crisis, but this is little more than background buzz. Subrin’s screenplay ultimately hinges on that tired trope by which one character’s travails are controversially fictionalized by another: Anna is distraught when she learns that blocked-writer Isaac’s current project draws heavily on her previous Manhattan incarnation. Thankfully, things don’t work out in the way we’re led to expect, a quietly moving and satisfying finale seeing Seymour’s Kate — who, at 50, has already gone through the kind of torments and insecurities besetting Anna — stepping hesitantly from sidelines to center stage.
Production company: Speculative Pictures
Cast: Maggie Siff, Cara Seymour, John Ortiz, Khandi Alexander, Dagmara Dominyczyk, Laila Robins, Eszter Balint
Director / Screenwriter: Elisabeth Subrin
Producers: Scott Macaulay, Shrihari Sathe
Executive producers: Maggie Siff, Ahsan Zaman
Co-producers: Mike Nichols, Taylor Shung
Cinematographer: Chris Dapkins
Production designer: Erin Beaupre
Costume designer: Sarah Maiorino
Editor: Jennifer Ruff
Casting: Anne Davison
Sales: Speculative Pictures, New York
No Rating, 98 minutes