A police procedural on the outside, Alan Pakula’s Klute
works most effectively as an exploration of the whore as the consummate actress.
In this character study, Jane Fonda plays Bree, a prostitute who’s an aspiring
actress by day: she’s a call girl who desperately needs a callback. Fonda’s performance
is layered enough that this almost becomes a meta-movie (all the more impressive
considering its generic roots). She’s Jane Fonda, playing a whore who plays at
being an actress (or is that the other way around?), who plays into the
fantasies of her clients. It’s almost impossible to watch without considering
the function of the Hollywood star system, which treats the masses like a john.
We pay our money, get two hours of an exciting fantasy that seems tailor made
for us, and then, after the movie’s climax, are made to revert to reality,
until the next time. When Bree talks midway through the film about a desire to
be “faceless and bodyless,” she might be revealing more about her desire to
please others than at any other time in the film. The actress, it seems is a
surrogate for our fantasies, because she doesn’t feel comfortable in
expressing her own. “The only responsibility you have to me is to enjoy
yourself,” she says, hoping we’ll buy into the illusion that she’s without
any needs, but her messy apartment suggests the pretense of control is a tenuous
for her as it is for us. While Bree’s eventual relationship with police detective Klute
(Donald Sutherland) might bring these issues too close to the surface to their
own good, for a while the movie seems revelatory in its willingness to call us
on our relationship with the facade of the movies.
It’s not really of a stinker as a cop movie, however, so
the film doesn’t exactly fizzle when it relies more heavily on its plot. Klute
is a small town cop from rural Pennsylvania who’s on the trail of a missing
family man that apparently wrote sexually explicit letters to Bree. Upon arriving in New York
City, he finds a seemingly infinite well of depravity. Strung out junkies,
orgiastic discos, innumerable call girls, and a generally gritty look dominate
the city’s vice-filled landscape. The movie wants us to believe its weak
minded thesis, which says the city is corrupt, and the country is somehow pure,
but it doesn’t really seem to recognize the willing corruptibility of the
title character or that the stalker they’re tracking came from the boondocks.
Still, the police procedural works in this backdrop, since as Klute is trying to
figure out what drives Bree’s stalker, we see Bree trying to figure out how
her clients get their rocks off. The environment becomes hostile toward Bree in
nearly every shot, and we aren’t sure that the dark corners in the edges of
the frame are empty of watchful eyes. Even the most basic dialogue scenes are
framed, so that the person listening to Bree becomes a dark, unknown figure.
This city is a world dominated by shadows and silhouettes.
Pakula’s direction isn’t fussy, but it creates an
effective, suffocating slow burn nonetheless. The tension levels are high enough throughout that we’re
never bored, even when we’re sure we know how the action will play out. The
minimalist score heightens the suspense considerably, and even the most mundane
scenes seem charged with energy because of the visual scheme of the movie, which
lends an uncertainty to the movie that makes us think that every scene could
potentially turn into a scary one. Fonda’s performance is solid, but that’s
partially because the script gives her several long scenes that are
near-monologues. In any case, she creates in Bree one of the most memorable
prostitutes to hit the big screen, alongside Leaving Las Vegas’s
Elisabeth Shue, Belle De Jour’s Catherine Deneuve, and Pixote’s
Marilia Pera. It’s a role that enriches the possibilities of the drama around
it. Thanks to its complexities of character and morality, Klute creates a
proposition for the audience in which there’s no such thing as simple
pleasure, even if we’re paying.