'Christine' makes tense cinema of TV reporter’s on-air tragedy

Christine is a slow-motion train wreck you can neither look away from nor help.

Christine is a slow-motion train wreck you can neither look away from nor help. Courtesy of The Orchard

Even if you don’t know how Christine ends, you know how Christine ends.

Antonio Campos’ account of a TV reporter who made national headlines for an unprecedented onscreen act in 1974 is all dread and anticipation waiting to be fulfilled. The film is so clearly building up to one moment that enduring it feels like watching a pot come to boil — and still not knowing how to react once it bubbles over.

Whether you consider that a plus or minus will likely depend on how you feel a film ought to handle such material. If you find Gus Van Sant’s elegiac recreation of the Columbine shooting in Elephant distasteful or otherwise difficult to watch, this one probably isn’t for you.

In a strange bit of cinematic kismet, Christine is one of two movies about Christine Chubbuck that premiered at Sundance this year, the other being Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine. That quasi-documentary’s uneasy conclusion — that to know and portray Chubbuck is probably impossible, and maybe even ill-advised — would appear to run counter to this film’s very existence.

But the two works are ultimately complementary despite their opposing philosophies; one fills in the gaps left by the other. Campos’ movie is satisfying in a narrower way, the tense thriller to Greene’s heady deconstruction. Christine is also a showcase for Rebecca Hall, who plays the title role in one of the year’s more magnetic performances.

Christine is one of those slow-motion train wrecks you can neither look away from nor help; the course she’s on is fixed, and in all likelihood she passed the point of no return long before we meet her. At first Hall’s mannerisms seem overly arch, even calculated: the English actress’ approximation of Chubbuck’s accent sounds stiff, almost affected. As you get used to her uncomfortable presence — and if you watch any footage of the actual Chubbuck — it becomes clear how skilled Hall is at portraying a woman who struggles to feel at ease in her own skin.

Chubbuck appeared on-air for Sarasota, Florida’s WZRB station, where her dedication to serious news coverage was at odds with the increasingly en vogue philosophy that “if it bleeds, it leads.” Hall plays her as socially anxious and virginal, a 29-year-old whose romantic life (or lack thereof) is just as frustrating as her lack of upward mobility in the workplace. “This isn’t the start of one of your moods, is it?” asks her mother, who’s also her roommate.

We know the implications of that question immediately, of course, and can also tell that whatever “moods” Christine experiences have likely gone untreated. The idea of a lost soul can be as romantic as it is tragic in the movies, but Campos mostly succeeds in not treating his subject as an exotic object to be observed rather than known. There’s a sympathy and affection for her. Campos is like a friend who knows he can’t help but still wants to listen.

Kierkegaard is often quoted as having said “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” That’s become a rote sentiment, but it feels oddly apropos of a movie whose soundtrack consists largely of easy-listening hits from the ’70s. Christine Chubbuck’s tragedy is that, 40 years and two movies later, her life still can’t be fully understood — each new angle raises as many questions as it answers.

Directed by Antonio Campos
Now playing, Lagoon Cinema