Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine is an intelligent and intense documentary skewering modern media ethics and studying psychosis, persona, and gender politics. At the center is journalist Christine Chubbuck who committed the first on-air suicide on a Sarasota news station, and the actress Kate Lyn Sheil charged with playing the woman in all of her various unknowable selves and deep depression. As the actress digs deep to find truth, her struggle for authenticity converges with Chubbuck’s own story (also featured this year in Antonio Campos’s Christine).
With nerve and patience, the film is an audacious hybrid of genre and thematic focus. It plays for psychological horror and satire while its journalist discovery of Chubbuck’s disposition remains the focus. The lines of documentary have been blurred plenty but not often in ways so reflective of the implications of the subject – the effect is disorienting and unsettling in unique ways.
Much like the urban legend surrounding Chubbuck, Kate Plays Christine exists as sometimes indistinguishable blend of fact and fiction. As we’re interpreting Sheil’s performance as the deceased host, you are meant question how much of Sheil as herself is also a put on, enhancing the character study of the enigmatic subject. Chubbuck’s fragmentation and inconsistencies become the hurdle for the actress’s obsessive process, but how much of Sheil’s hand-wringing is performative for the sake of defining Chubbuck (or any “character”) as unknowable? The film ultimately posits that truth in personality is as much found in the person we present to the world as the one at our core.
In the search for reality (either subjective or documented), the film is also curious about the process of the actor – a thematic piece that blends seamlessly to the film’s themes of being watched if not so much with its ideas on our cultural media climate. Comparing Shiel’s growing disease and temperament with that of a troubled, suicidal woman is tricky material that it doesn’t fully avoid trivializing Chubbuck’s ultimate act. Perhaps in the film’s laid-back inquisitive pace there is too much time to allow the viewer’s mind to wander.
Even if all of the ideas don’t lead to a succinct vision of thought, its various interests create a fascinating whole without any simple answers. Kate Plays Christine is not an intersection of ideas but an octopus with many far-reaching arms, at least one of which will grab you by the shoulders and shake you. Ending on a disturbing note, the film has more that lingers beyond shock value or rubbernecking thanks to its profound and punishing soul diving.