Taking the clichés out of prostitution

Society and its outcasts are what inform Lodge Kerrigan's films, so don't expect his latest to be an easy ride, warns Demetrios Matheou
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It is not unusual for a movie to be screened at a film festival, only to disappear from sight immediately afterwards. A critical mauling - even apathy - can kill a film's chances of being released to the public. But when Claire Dolan appeared at Cannes two years ago, then vanished, it seemed particularly unjust. For the film is one of the most challenging yet made about prostitution. And its director, the New Yorker Lodge Kerrigan, is regarded by some as one of the most original, courageous directors working today.

Claire Dolan has finally surfaced, as belatedly in America as in the UK. It centres on British actress Katrin Cartlidge as Claire, an Irish immigrant in New York, heavily in debt to her pimp, who, on the death of her mother, decides to extricate herself from her life of prostitution and have a child herself. It's a stark film, surprising as much for its view of New York as a place of chilling alienation as for its relatively explicit (though far from titillating) sex scenes, dramatic restraint and refusal to press the usual feel-good buttons we expect of stories about prostitutes. Pretty Woman it certainly is not.

The film is Kerrigan's second feature. His debut, the startling Clean, Shaven, featured another social taboo, schizophrenia. A mild-mannered, sensitive, intensely thoughtful 36-year-old, Kerrigan is also a man with a mission. "The work I do is largely about destroying clichés," he says. "Every film ever made is a political film: it either reinforces the status quo, or does not. I'm really interested in films that question convention, that counter certain values in society.

"I think in the case of Clean, Shaven, it was that schizophrenics are painted as mass murderers whenever you hear about them. They're excluded from society. I wanted to make a film that forced the audience to question any prejudice it may have had. With Claire Dolan, usually films made about prostitution feature the whore with a heart of gold who waits for the knight in shining armour to ride in and save her. So I tried to attack that cliché."

The idea for the film came, he says, while he was walking through Times Square before Mayor Giuliani's famous clean-up campaign. "At that time there were a lot of prostitutes working in the area, and a lot of them were pregnant, heavily so. When I first saw this, I was totally shocked. If I have that sort of visceral response, I start to wonder why. So I tried to examine what it was, specifically in the combination of prostitution and motherhood, that was so upsetting. And I think it was because I had a really sexist attitude at that time. Society is constantly reinforcing this taboo, asserting the separation of women into the mother and the whore; I realised that had had an unconscious effect on me.

"In a large way," he continues, "the film's got nothing to do with prostitution - it just has to do with a woman changing her life under difficult circumstances. But at another level, it is a critique of commercial sex, how that is really image-based. And that obsession with image goes beyond sex, into fashion, the media - everyone is so obsessed with their image. You see women on the subway reading Vogue, concerned just with pictures of other women. Or men checking out women in the street, parents - and I'm a parent - checking out other people's children, making all these judgements based just on an image. That to me is a shame, I really rebel against it, I think that people's opinions should be based on a real emotional interaction, a relationship."

The film's presentation of New York - devoid of landmarks, presenting merely a close-up array of impersonal façades, claustrophobic and creepy - underlines Kerrigan's perspective. (It also makes Claire Dolan slightly reminiscent of the Seventies' paranoia thrillers - Klute, The Parallax View and All The President's Men - of Alan J Pakula and the cameraman Gordon Willis.)

"For me New York is not a city of skyscrapers, it's a city of windows," says Kerrigan. "The high-rises give people little personal space, little privacy, you can just look out of your window and see 50 different people doing different things. So on some level you have to detach yourself. I figured it was really important to create a sense of isolation and claustrophobia and voyeurism, with all those reflective surfaces."

Before deciding to be a director, Kerrigan first studied philosophy, and considered a career as a journalist: if one had to characterise his films with a word, it would be as "investigations". After graduating from New York University's film school, Kerrigan worked as a cameraman on low-budget short films and commercials, made some shorts, and finally directed Clean, Shaven in 1993 for just $60,000 (Claire Dolan was a snip at $1.5 million).

Though not a household name, the great and good of America's independent film industry line up to praise him. "I have rarely experienced such dread as when watching a Lodge Kerrigan film," says Hal Hartley, "a dread all the more inescapable because I can't place my finger exactly on its source. But Claire Dolan and Clean, Shaven are about people, and in this regard, his observations are as worthwhile as they are unsettling."

Allison Anders, whose films, including Gas Food Lodging, tend to focus on the experience of women, calls Claire Dolan "one of the great masterpieces in the American independent movement," adding that, "Kerrigan is a genius. And that's a term that I usually reserve for my own gender."

So what stalled the film's release? Kerrigan politely says, "contractual issues. But as the film-maker, I'm the last to know why." His star, Katrin Cartlidge, is more direct. "When a lot of people first saw it two years ago - and this is before films like Romance - they were quite shocked. To be frank, I think they didn't understand it. They felt that because it was very explicit, it should also be erotic; they were angry that it wasn't a film about how sexy a prostitute is. It is men who mostly respond in that way." And the film business, like film criticism, is dominated by men.

Cartlidge, best known for her roles in Mike Leigh's Naked and Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, compares Kerrigan to those two directors. "These people go to uncharted waters, they look at things in a different way. Thank God. Look at Lars von Trier's Dogma - a reaction to cliché. And all of them have had to go through a period of being rejected wholeheartedly by the critical establishment, money-men, all the people responsible for making films. I hope to God that people will wake up and see that Lodge is an original, a real film-maker."

Perhaps it's already started. "When something disappears off the map like Claire Dolan did," adds Cartlidge, "and then starts reappearing again at the grassroots, which is what's been happening, you can be sure that there's an afterlife for that film. I have a feeling that it will go on being reappraised for years to come."

'Claire Dolan': ICA, WC1 (020 7930 3647), May 5 to May 25