Sex for Sale in the City

With a sick mother and no money, what's a girl to do?

Happy hooker? Femme fatale? Damsel in distress? The movies have always been fascinated with prostitutes. Most films generally portray them as resourceful, often wise and amusing, and somewhat scary, using sex in ways that both amaze and titillate (from Blue Angelon through Mighty Aphrodite). The sordid aspects of the trade generally don't find screen time, and the films that don't shy away (Taxi Driver, L.A. Confidential) keep most of the dirty work offscreen.

Why is this? An obvious answer is that most filmmakers are male and tend to objectify female characters. They represent something other than themselves, an outside force: power, seduction, danger. Who are these women (and men) really? What do they think about and what do they want? Some of these questions are answered in Lodge Kerrigan's Claire Dolan, which takes a cold hard look at one hooker's life in New York City. The title character, an Irish immigrant, owes a lot of money to a family acquaintance, Roland Cain, a bulky Irishman with a surface charm and a heart of stone. It appears that Cain has been footing the bill for Claire's mother's nursing-home bills. To pay off her debt to Cain, Claire toils as a call girl, servicing an endless stream of sad-sack businessmen while Cain oversees her work.

When her mother dies, Claire begins to change. Seeking to break free from Cain's grasp, she slips across the Hudson River to hide out at her cousin's New Jersey apartment. There she takes a new job in a beauty parlor and begins a tentative relationship with a soulful cab driver, Elton Garrett. She can't bring herself to reveal her past to him, fearing he'll find her repulsive. As they grow closer, a tender romance blossoms. But when Cain tracks her down, Claire submits to his will and returns to sex slavery in Manhattan. When Elton follows her to the city and discovers her sordid truth, he resolves to rescue Claire from Cain's clutches.

Gritty woman: A Euro-style prostitute's story
Gritty woman: A Euro-style prostitute's story
Gritty woman: A Euro-style prostitute's story
Gritty woman: A Euro-style prostitute's story

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But Claire has plans of her own, and the story takes some interesting turns, decidedly atypical for an American film. This isn't upbeat can-do philosophizing, the sort of transformation popularized by Hollywood and self-help gurus. Claire Dolan sticks determinedly to a more lifelike narrative: Things happen, people change, but then they part ways with matters not quite resolved. This style of filmmaking has long been the province of the Europeans, and it's clear that Kerrigan set out to create a Euro-style feature. After gaining notice with his earlier Clean, Shaven at Cannes in 1994, Kerrigan began a happy collaboration with MK2 the French film production company that financed Claire. MK2 ought to feel right at home with the very French look of Kerrigan's work. He and cinematographer Teodor Miniaci have created an urban wilderness of stark reflective surfaces, decidedly underpopulated by human beings. Kerrigan's New York is a spooky place, virtually uninhabited, with lonely back streets and empty apartments, silent but for distant city noises.

Such a vision, lacking much action or energy, puts the focus squarely on the three principal characters. In the title role, Katrin Cartlidge turns in a cool, eerie performance. With an offbeat beauty and haunted eyes, the actress manages to give Claire heart and determination, even as she's victimized in a never-ending cycle of commercial sex. Cartlidge is interesting to watch, but it's her costar Vincent D'Onofrio who is downright riveting as Elton the cab driver. D'Onofrio, with his non-leading-man good looks, has the physical presence and inner sweetness of the young Brando. His Elton, struggling with emotional choices and doubts, brings heart and energy to every scene he's in. He's balanced by the nasty Cain, played with malevolent charm by veteran Irish actor Colm Meaney. Director Kerrigan gets solid performances from his leads, but he's hampered by a certain imbalance. While Cartlidge is solid, she lacks the magnetism of D'Onofrio and Meany, both of whom dominate the picture. As a result Claire tends to get lost in her own story.

This problem is exacerbated by aspects of Kerrigan's script, which deliberately keeps the details of Claire's life vague. Exactly why she came to America, why her mother is there, and what Cain's relationship is to her family are left unexplained. There are a couple of possibilities: that Cain and Claire had a sexual relationship in the distant past, or that Claire is not so much a prostitute by circumstance but by compulsion. This makes for some interesting speculation, and Kerrigan, who earned a philosophy degree before heading to New York University's film school, might be encouraging that.

What's really lacking here is ideology. If we aren't expected to become emotionally involved, at least we can expect to be engaged intellectually. Kerrigan, unfortunately, doesn't deliver many coherent ideas. There are times when this film has the potential to investigate a number of concepts: the burden of the past, the impermanence of human relations, the idea of indebtedness as self-imprisonment. At one point Claire's prostitution appears to serve as a metaphor for all our sellouts and how we secretly collaborate with our incarceration. His idea of debt as slavery is a powerful one, but the moment passes, and the story never follows through.

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