Klute (1971)

Directed by Alan J. Pakula

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Klute works, but sometimes it feels like it shouldn’t.  It’s an investigative thriller named for the investigating cop, John Klute (Donald Sutherland), but he’s not even the main character.  That would be Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), a call girl who serves as Klute’s best bet to track down the man he’s been hired to find.

She isn’t even all that interested in his investigation and at times actively thwarts it.  So basically she just gets in the way of the plot, effectively slowing the movie to a crawl.  But it’s her scenes that work best, her relationship with Klute and the ways she tries to control him as well as understand why she wants to control him.

Much of the film spends time with her in analysis, explaining her fears, her lifestyle and trying to figure out what she’s looking for.  These scenes really do shine a light into the character, as she struggles with things that feel all too human but which most films ram right over.

The idea of a straight-laced, stoic cop and a call girl falling in love feels contrived and melodramatic on the surface.  They are drawn together because of or despite their differences, and the reason for their relationship as it serves the film is specifically because they are different, with nothing to do with their internal lives.

But Klute investigates these characters, challenges and questions them.  It allows Bree to investigate herself and to come to sensible conclusions about what she’s afraid of, what she wants and why there is probably no future with the cop.

And all of this, the best parts of the film, have nothing to do with the ostensible plot, the investigation into a missing man who may or may not be dead but who either way is utterly forgettable.

An early dinner table scene shows a family having a pleasant time with company, the wife looks at her husband, and we cut straight from that to his empty chair, now with the wife telling the police that he has gone missing.  It’s a striking moment, the whole ‘one minute you’re here, the next you’re gone’ kind of thing, and I think it gets at one of the underlying ideas of the film, but it has little to do with the missing character himself.

That opening shot might instill in you some idea about how temporary this all is, whether life itself or just certain phases of your life.  If you subscribe to some idea of life as a series of dreams (thank you Richard Linklater), then you can talk yourself into the idea that every moment is not only fleeting but maybe already passed by the time you consider it.  Reflecting on a moment, even one a matter of seconds ago, means it has already passed.  Or something like that, my mind is up in the clouds again.

But I do think that opening scene, spending time with a character we will never again see during the film, highlights this idea of something being so temporary and fleeting.  And only then do we spend time with these two characters, Bree and John Klute, for whom the investigation is secondary or altogether unimportant, as they navigate their own needs, desires and fears as if its an unsolvable maze.  Bree eventually speaks to the idea of wanting to figure this all out, her own subconscious, before it’s too late so that she can just get on with her life.

And it all only works because the characters are so fully realized.  Klute hardly seems to speak, but Sutherland conveys so much with his gaze.  Bree, for her part, has plenty of time to speak, and it’s not only what she says but the manic way in which she says it, like she’s tapping her foot along to a rapid drumbeat only she can hear.

You just spend enough time with them, soaking them up in moments that feel so intimate that we shouldn’t be watching, and you see in them something in yourself, even if it’s just a small part of you or a small moment in time.  It’s something that feels honest, a bit heartbreaking and incredibly raw.

And this melancholy is all aided by the fact that their relationship doesn’t seem like it will work out, simply because they are different people who want different things (outside of dealing with the man who stalks Bree from the shadows and who surely has something to do with Klute’s investigation).  With her analyst she speaks to the idea that he’ll want to settle down somewhere quiet, and she could never live that lifestyle, doing the things he might expect of her.

They co-exist only in this moment, while there is an outstanding investigation and practical reasons for them being together.  He wants to protect her from this lifestyle (one she takes pride in for how well she does it), and she literally does need protection from him, though not from the men he wants to ward off, just the one who has been harassing her.  When he’s gone, they’re done.

And that again speaks to this idea of transience.  One minute you’re here, the next you’re not.  One minute they’re together, the next they’re not, and the moment was so brief as a whole that years later they could recall from it only the hazy details of an old dream.

Up Next: Low Tide (2019), Julieta (2016), Spartan (2004)

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