“Actress,” Robert Greene’s unnervingly self-reflexive and puckishly ironic documentary portrait of the title character as a discontented housewife, suggests that the reason women can’t get good roles in the acting profession has a lot to do with the lack of good roles for them in real life. It also demonstrates that everybody plays roles — not necessarily of our own choosing — and some are better paid and more successful than others.
Brandy Burre had a successful role — the ruthless political adviser Theresa D’Agostino on HBO’s “The Wire.” But she found that the line between the persona she played and her own identity was blurring. “I was thinking about that scene where I say, ‘I’m a type A. I tend to break things,’ ” she confides to the camera, as she will continue to do throughout “Actress.” “It occurred to me it wasn’t just the character — it was me.”
So she decided to drop out of acting to start a family with her partner, far from the city, in an old house in upstate Hudson, N.Y. (next door, as it turns out, to Greene). As the film begins, Burre’s finding that the homemaker and mother role has grown less rewarding. She tries to reenter her profession, informing agents and contacts that she’s available. As for real life, she also edges toward something new — and this role has some of the tragic potential of an Ibsen play.
Perhaps the presence of the camera encourages it, but even when coaxing her kids to eat their cereal or sloughing chunks of green goo out of a drain (kitchen-sink realism, perhaps), Burre always seems to be acting, and Greene plays along with her in underscoring this affectation. She washes dishes wearing a dress and heels like a 1950s model homemaker. She spends a lot of time in front of mirrors applying makeup and brushing her hair. She poses dramatically in the kids’ toy room and does two takes of the line, “So this is my creative outlet.”
Her mate doesn’t add much in the way of satisfaction. Shot in slow motion (one of many such uses of the technique by Greene) Burre greets her partner with a smile as he comes home from work. He responds with indifference to her overtures. Greene adds melodramatic touches to such scenes, playing evocative music on the soundtrack and cutting to symbolic shots of the bleak Beacon train platform or ice floes on the frozen Hudson River. Combining artifice with vérité documentary style, he underscores the inextricability of real life and make-believe, of genuine behavior and self-conscious performance.
These artifices can’t contain the desires, frustrations, and inequities that lie beneath. Ultimately, something does break — for real — and the aftermath serves as a reminder that the roles imposed by society and culture, especially on women, will always prevail over those we invent for ourselves.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.