“Klute” is a devilish movie.
If you asked any man to candidly express his biggest frustration with women, you are likely to get an answer like this: “I don’t know what they really want.”
“Klute” is too specific and particular to answer that question cleanly. All it does is raise the possibility that men are generally being hosed when they think they have been given an answer. It also indirectly raises the question of whether women are being hosed when they think they have been given the question. All in that dark brain of that self-possessed, insidiously clever woman, Bree Daniels. (She is variously called “Bree Daniel” and “Bree Daniels” in the film– check it out.)
Here’s a summary: Tom Gruneman, a businessman in Tuscarora, PA, disappears one day. After six months of frustration, his boss, Peter Cable, and family, hire a private detective and family friend, John Klute (Donald Sutherland, who is wonderful in the role), to undertake an investigation to try to determine what happened to him. Their only real clue is an violently obscene letter found in Gruneman’s desk, addressed to an escort named Bree Daniels in New York. In this well-made film, the family does not appear to be totally shocked– they’re more concerned about the disappearance, than they are shocked by the indiscretion, at the moment. But that colorful little detail adds a murky, dark texture to the quest. What was he up to?
Klute goes to New York and contacts Bree Daniels. She refuses to see him at first. So Klute takes an apartment in her building, below hers, and succeeds in tapping her phone and recording her calls. He uses the recordings as leverage to get her to agree to meet with him. When she does, she tries to entice him in the most predictable way imaginable, but he is clearly unmoved by her exotic allure, and her sexuality. Instead, he persuades her to lead him on a dark exploration of the world of drug addicts and prostitutes in New York, to gather information from anyone who may have had contact with Gruneman, including the prostitute who gave him Bree’s name.
At one point, she asks him what he thinks about her glamorous life in the city and her friends: he tells her they are pathetic, and she is wounded. She liked to think she was somehow shocking and roguish (oddly, like the Sally Bowles character in “Cabaret”, who also seemed to take a special pleasure in the illusion that she was somehow shockingly outrageous).
This narrative is periodically interrupted with Bree’s therapy sessions with a female psychiatrist. Bree tells her how she feels about her job, how it gives her control and power over men, how they are easily manipulated, and how she needs to know that they desire her. These are some of the most corrosive passages in the movie. They are among the most corrosive passages in any movie (the only serious competition probably comes from “Carnal Knowledge”). Do you think you know your wife? Even worse is the “You Don’t Own Me” aspect of it: Bree is consummately independent, self-contained, needless. She wants life on her own terms. She doesn’t need or expect anyone to enter her life to protect or manage her.
She thinks she might become a model or an actress: in another caustic scene, she goes to a cattle call for actresses, and we witness how the women are lined up, examined, and judged clinically, and rejected. And we learn how Bree sees the way society judges women.
Here’s brilliant artistry: we aren’t give the “Shawshank Redemption” treatment here, and asked to be shocked and outraged at Bree”s treatment at these auditions. Instead, we become aware of how deeply embedded this kind of objectification is– it is casual and routine, and Bree herself isn’t shocked. It is a far more powerful statement than the more usual Hollywood treatment, in which Bree would demand attention, receive it, and glow with triumph while earning the grudging respect of the cruel casting directors.
There’s nothing caricatured or mean about this scene, other than the subject: the casting directors act in a way that is a caricature of how we judge beauty and worthiness. It’s just the way we do business. Bree understands that and plays along with it when necessary, but you can see how her options are really limited. How different, really, is the industry that also dehumanizes the subjects of our gaze, manipulates them like objects, punishes them for not matching our illusions about beauty and privilege.
It raises the question though– why doesn’t Bree just get an education and look for a regular job? She’s smart and attractive. “Klute” answers that question: because it would only result in her being used in different ways, being pressed into conformity, and forced to sacrifice her independence. It would be part of the package that Gruneman and John Klute himself represent, and they illustrate to her that even the powerful members of that society are drawn to the outliers, the rebels, the divergent.
It challenges the most fundamental assumptions about sex and sexual relationships and power and privilege and desire.
In the end, perhaps as a concession to the audience, Bree does decide to take a chance on a more conventional lifestyle. It doesn’t feel totally plausible to me, but it doesn’t hurt the story very much, artistically, because it doesn’t anesthetize the viewer with drippy music or a pastel sunset. They both know it won’t be easy.
And the astute viewer knows that it probably won’t work.