Review: ‘Christine’

Christine Chubbuck was a TV reporter at a station in Sarasota, Florida when on July 15, 1974 while reporting live on air, the production team was unable to switch to a video that she had just announced, so instead she read a few lines she wrote for the occasion — “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living color, you are going to see another first: attempted suicide” — took a revolver from her purse, and shot herself behind her right ear. She died in the hospital later that day. This is not a spoiler. If you google her name her suicide pops up before you can even click a link.

That her death is so posthumously defining seems to be exactly what “Christine,” directed by Antonio Campos and starring Rebecca Hall as Chubbuck tries to counteract. The film is interested in What’s Eating Christine. The camera seems to act a sidekick, ferrying after her as she navigates the newsroom (where her community-focused reporting goes unappreciated), her home (where she lives with her mother, who struggles to understand her or her mental illness, but shows love and concern and a brave persistence in administering care to someone who has trouble accepting it), and, in doses here and there, the outside world. Hall plays Christine with an impressive lived-in unease that resonates on a simple level: it is hard to be. If you are a serious-looking woman with considerable insecurities, masked vulnerability, earnest dreams and ambitions, big ideas, a high level of intelligence, and mental illness—and all in the 1970s—at some point your body might stop feeling like your own. Hall doesn’t shy away from Christine’s unease, and instead leans into it, unafraid to portray a female character who has neither grace nor imperviousness to justify her.

But this is also a film in which the circumstances of Christine’s death are outlined and hypothesized for us so we don’t have to wonder. And it is this very act of demystification that is the film’s trouble. ‘Christine’s’ psychoanalytical approach gives us very little sense of Christine’s experience of her own pain beyond readable responses and reactions. Hall is forced to navigate a narrative of cause and effect, which threatens to narrow her performance into a series of checked boxes. This is at its worst in the first half hour of the film, which lumbers by with scene after scene of stylized exposition. Throughout the film, Christine suffers from sometimes crippling stomach pain. That pain becomes a blaring signifier that is further stifled by uninspired mise-en-scene and only saved by Hall’s commitment to shakiness, to embodied instability, and to the persistent, all-consuming discomfort of being, specifically in the sense that Christine must “be” in her roles as reporter, daughter, and woman, which are never quite distinct.

‘Christine’ succeeds in humanizing a woman who suffered from what was likely bipolar disorder, yet fails in actually justifying its own existence as a film. Beyond the cinematic relevance of Christine’s decision to kill herself on air, a long form article might have achieved exactly — if not a bit more than — what Campos’s film did. I was mostly excited to witness Hall play a character whose beauty was not untouchable but whose intelligence was. Christine is sensitive to the amorality and flightiness of others, and Hall lets her have that, never writing off her passion as affliction. I would have loved to see Hall’s Christine exist in a film that doesn’t seek to tell us who Christine was as some kind of thesis about why she committed suicide, but rather wonders what exactly it was that she didn’t want to feel anymore.

The film’s best scene is entirely a construction. Christine goes on what is presumably a date with her colleague George Peter Ryan, who she’s harbored a longtime crush on. After dinner, he takes her to a transactional analysis (TA) session held in a high school gym. (The real George was a practitioner, but it is not known whether or not Chubbuck ever accompanied him to a session.) She is partnered with a woman whom she’s meant to play a game with. Christine tells her a problem she has, the woman offers a suggestion, and Christine must respond with “Yes, but” along with an excuse or explanation, and then the woman must offer another suggestion, and the cycle continues. The game goes wrong when it becomes clear that Christine’s troubles cannot be talked away by the naive suggestions of a stranger. The world Christine wants, and that she values for legitimate reasons, is out of reach. She is self-aware enough to understand why, but not clear-eyed enough to see beyond her immediate suffocation. She all but implores the woman for an answer, for some help, for a logical way out of this theoretical and lived-in trap which is her own isolation and alienation. The strangeness and vulnerability of this scene felt singularly of Christine’s world. It was the only scene that seemed to acknowledge that her death was not a simple accumulation of the circumstances of her life—and that she actually lived.

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Cassie da Costa is a writer who focuses on moving image and performance. She's based in Brooklyn and works as a member of The New Yorker's editorial staff while also producing the magazine's video podcast, The Front Row, featuring film critic Richard Brody.

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