Opening with a tableau of a woman dressed in red, standing over her kitchen sink with her back to the camera, Robert Greene’s (Kati with an I, Fake It So Real) latest documentary, Actress, almost immediately establishes itself as a dizzying non-fiction force to be reckoned with. The woman in question is Brandy Burre, the subject of Actress, who stands still with the water running, while also clumsily toying with a glass in her right hand. Brandy’s voiceover narration in this opening passage informs us that she “tends to break things,” a recurring symbol of her fight to regain the creative outlet she’s being pining to return to for a long while for: acting. While not a particularly memorable opening shot in terms of aesthetics, this sort of stylized vérité filmmaking that offers an immediate glimpse into the headspace of a frazzled housewife is then counterbalanced by the next scene: Brandy wakes up early in the morning as any mother would and proceeds to get her two young children, Henry and Stella, ready for the day.Actress is supremely dynamic in the blending of the utterly banal with the dreamy and heightened. To watch this interplay unfold is nothing short of revelatory.
If Brandy Burre is familiar to anyone at all, it will be to those who recall her in the third and fourth seasons of HBO’s The Wire as Theresa D’Agostino, a political campaign consultant to Baltimore councilman-running-for-mayor Tommy Carcetti. Eventually, though, Brandy gave up her career to start a family with her restaurant-owner boyfriend, Tim, and their two kids in quiet and homely Beacon, N.Y. Since then, life’s ripple effect has taken shape, causing Brandy’s domestic life to slowly collapse in on itself: She and Tim have split up, and the pressure to reclaim success in the acting world is a weight that only grows heavier. As she puts it, “I have to make a living to get my freedom back.” The beauty of Actress is that there’s no definitive beginning or end, flashbacks to youth, or artificial stage-setting inserts. Greene’s film, instead, is built on happy accidents and unexpected snapshots at almost every turn — the stuff of everyday life, in other words.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Actress, in the end, is how much of a true collaboration it is between filmmaker and subject.
As much as Actress is a rare and singular portrait of a woman struggling to stage a comeback, it succeeds best as a layered commentary on the many facets of performance. Here, Brandy speaks directly to the camera during interviews (an anecdote about a diaper changer is especially unexpectedly heartbreaking) and plays to it in full improv mode — an approach that allows for a consistent sense of discovery, honesty, and surprise. While Greene is only present via his camera (we never see him or hear his voice), his distance allows for a particular subjective space to be carved out for Brandy, one that easily transcends the tropes seen in most contemporary docs. It’s a freedom that runs all throughout Actress, one that frequently locates a grandness in the mundane and the madness of a life being lived and reflected upon.
Two slow-motion scenes best display this sort of overwhelming sensory exploration. In one, the camera tracks Brandy in a black dress and drink in hand through her living room at night as she arrives to her daughter on the staircase to retrieve a hanger. The other is an astounding stationary pull-back near the end of the film that finds Brandy sitting alone in a brightly lit room with a battered face (for reasons at that point unknown to us) until she’s comforted by her kids. Showy as both these scenes may be in context, they nevertheless resonate deeply because of how Greene goes against audience expectations, offering up risky gambits and hints of ambiguity seemingly out of nowhere.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Actress, in the end, is how much of a true collaboration it is between filmmaker and subject. Brandy stands as Greene’s creative equal: an emotionally charged, complicated, and melancholic spirit who lives through intersecting roles (don’t we all?) in order to find her own peace of mind. Exhilarating and unnerving in equal measure, Actress is that rare film, fiction and non-fiction, that could be said to capture life in its purest, most lyrical form.