How well do you know yourself?
It’s a question that a pretentious agent poses to Bree Daniel, the would-be actress and call girl played by Jane Fonda, midway through 1971’s Klute. It’s attached to a muddled metaphysical philosophy about performance, and we are clearly meant to dismiss the guy as a charlatan, but this jerk has inadvertently asked the most important question in Bree’s life--and in the movie. Bree’s quest for self, and her denial of the same, is central to Klute, a sometimes thriller that ultimately ends up being about character and, in its own odd way, a modern romance.
John Klute is a bit of an enigma; ironically, he is the more confident yet also the more buttoned-up of the two. Sutherland plays him as alert, but distant, always watching but with his head up and his leaning back so he’s looking down. The film, which was directed by Alan J. Pakula (All The President’s Men; Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing [review]), practically invites the audience to not like John Klute. He seems like a hypocrite, always judging, yet quietly indulging his own kink. He’s a voyeur who wants to follow in his quarry’s footsteps.
No, the film may be named after Klute, but it really belongs to Bree. We follow her in her private life as an added observer. Bree is watched by us, Klute, the unseen villain, and just about every man in every room she walks in. Fonda is fierce and complex, moving naturally through the character’s contradictions. Though Bree is trying to step away from being a call girl to focus on acting and modeling--a life we are shown to be even more degrading via a few nicely done scenes--in her mind, hooking allows her to maintain a semblance of control. This is, of course, a self-delusion that Klute will break down. The more we see of what Bree has been getting away from, including her oily pimp (Roy Scheider, All That Jazz [review]), the more we respect the façade she has built for herself. Klute’s forcing her to take a tour through her past does less to find the disappeared businessman and more to uncover Bree’s foundations.
Setting is used for psychological effect in Klute. New York is a big city, but Pakula makes it feel cramped. People live in small spaces, overcrowded by stuff; bigger rooms, like nightclubs and brothels, are packed with people. Where there is not people, there is stuff; where there is not stuff, there is people. This ties in to John Klute’s distaste for the city, something Bree often pokes fun at. He’s a country boy--albeit from a wealthy countryside, not exactly a hayseed. By contrast, the office of Klute’s boss, Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi), is sparse and clean, like a minimalist James Bond villain. Metal, glass, and shiny surfaces but with none of the bombast. There’s no hiding in there, even if the place is full of secrets.
Yet, there is hiding in the city--which is what Bree is doing. She isolates herself, letting her private life be private, showing each paying client a different personality. It’s no wonder she’s maybe gotten a little lost or forgotten herself. Pakula and his writers, Andy and David E. Lewis, grant us access to all aspects of Bree’s life, including her therapy sessions, where she puts up a good fight only to willingly spill her guts. Again, there is an irony here to how much we get to know and how little the detective actually figures out. He is cerebral whereas Bree is better rounded, more emotional, but her stock in trade is playing those emotions smart. It’s only when the deadly plot she finds herself mixed up in forces her to really look in the mirror that things fall apart. Luckily for her, this is a movie, so even if the ending isn’t entirely happy, we can at least imagine her putting those pieces back together.
Klute’s central mystery takes a backseat to all of this. The character work is clearly what Pakula is more interested in, and what he’s good at. Though Klute does get a climax where the true culprit emerges and threatens Bree’s life, it’s really just a means to an end, the last act to push Bree out of her comfort zone and embrace what’s next. The violence itself is handled clumsily, to the point I had to rewind to make sure I hadn’t missed something. It almost appears like Pakula shot something more elaborate, lost the footage, and had to cobble together something with what he had. It’s not enough to derail the movie, because by that point you probably don’t care what happened to ol’ what’shisname anyway. It’s the girl we’re after, and the girl who wins the day.
This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.