Antonio Campos’s Christine sensitively traces the last few days of real-life journalist Christine Chubbuck, who killed herself on live television in 1974.
We first see Christine (Rebecca Hall) as Sarasota residents in the 70s were accustomed to seeing her: on a TV screen. She hones her skills by pretending to interview the soon-to-be impeached President Nixon. This is what Christine aspires to: covering news that matters.
Christine looks authoritative, her posture confident, her tone interrogatory. And yet, only fleetingly, does her expression shift from confident journalist to vulnerable person in pain, desperately in need of a support. The orange of her dress and the curtain behind her, a colour often used for warning signs, contributes to this feeling of unease.
Hall’s Christine is a tragic figure, trying to make a difference; to do the right thing in a world where there is really no such thing. The societal ambiguity, underlined by references to Nixon, the abuser of a sacrosanct position, terrifies her. What’s even more terrifying is Christine’s own involuntary but inherent ambiguity.
Christine has a crush on a colleague (Michael C. Hall) but is uncommunicative when he approaches. She also wants to cover more serious stories that are currently at odds with her boss’s (Tracy Letts) ratings obsession. Sometimes Christine’s mother (J Smith-Cameron) is an oppressive, watchful figure, and sometimes she’s just her cool, pot-smoking flatmate Peg.
Paddy Chayefsky’s script for the satirical masterpiece Network (1976) was greatly inspired by the professional aspects of Chubbuck’s story such as the obsession with the ‘blood and guts’ news stories that Chubbuck mentioned moments before shooting herself. The real-life Christine’s relatives said that it was personal rather than professional issues that drove her to commit suicide.
However, Campos goes to great lengths not to isolate specific causes, instead preferring to explore both sides. The result paints a complicated picture with work conflicts and personal fights forming strands that intertwine and wrap around Christine like a noose and slowly squeeze the life out of her.
The tighter the noose becomes, the faster Christine unravels. Hall’s performance is electrifyingly erratic – when Christine clashes with Peg, she’s angry, unreasonable and scared. She accuses her mother of abandoning her; of not helping her prepare for her mental affliction. Hall’s face involuntarily contorts and twitches – a maelstrom of anger and fear. Christine’s terror truncates her diction and breathing; the noose becomes a little tighter, a little more literal. It’s a suffocating, Oscar-worthy performance.
The film is also complemented by a strong performance from Smith-Cameron. Peg’s own internal panic at seeing her child deteriorate right before her eyes; at being reminded that she doesn’t understand what is happening to her daughter, is just as terrifying as Hall’s performance.
The fact is, no-one really appreciates what’s happening to Christine. Even when she stumbles upon some sort of therapy, it’s so clumsy and rigid that all it does is exacerbate Christine’s depression and presses the world’s stresses even harder.
The camerawork emphasises Christine’s feeling of claustrophobia – during her more intense showdowns with her family and colleagues, she is framed standing close to a corner or a wall, a persistent reminder that they are closing in and trapping her.
The incredible irony of this is that Christine’s perceived route of escape is via the smallest of spaces; the tightest of angles – the television set. It’s her escape to meaning. “I just want to make sure I’m really saying something,” she asserts. To further compound the tragic irony, it’s not even a real TV where she accomplishes her mission – she helps out at a local community centre, putting on puppet shows, framed by a cardboard TV, that sadly come closest to her working through her feelings and thoughts.
While Campos’ film is primarily an exploration of Christine’s pain, loneliness and depression, it’s informed through the pain of others. Tracy Letts’ character, seemingly an archetypal boorish prick of a boss, is in fact trying his hardest to keep the struggling station going. Michael C Hall’s George, a successful and charismatic lead anchor has an extremely damaged, depressing past.
It’s in Christine’s closest thing to a friend, her colleague Jean (Maria Dizzia), that Christine’s (the film) underlying, sad point is really made. Jean tells Christine about her coping mechanism for stress: she would go and eat a tub of ice cream and sing a happy song. Everyone is damaged but all have managed to find a way of working through the pain to some sort of stability, even success.
This doesn’t in any way undermine Christine, far from it – it crystallises her suffering by showing us just how terrifying depression is – it convinces Christine that it really is ‘her against the world’, breaking her down bit by bit until she’s so fragile, any minor setback feels like a nuclear bomb going off.
Unfortunately, the ultimate tragedy of Christine’s eponymous protagonist is that her worst nightmare really was true, just in a different way: the world wasn’t against her, it just didn’t know how to help her. 4/5
Please note, this review was originally published as part of our London Film Festival coverage in October.