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A Girl in the Woods: On Finding Comfort in Bree Daniels

[trigger warning: incest]

What I’d really like to do is be faceless, and bodiless, and left alone.”

-Bree Daniels, Klute

When I was around fourteen I started to sneak out of the house during the early a.m. hours to escape. Escape what? My body, my life, my father, it didn’t matter. I could never get to sleep, because I couldn’t turn my brain off. I’ve always been the type of person who goes to dark places when left without someone or something to cling onto, and night exacerbated those feelings. We lived out in the woods and there was this creek bed that I found comforting. It was a couple minutes walking distance away from my bedroom window. It wasn’t very deep, but there was enough water to create that rolling effect that let me feel at ease. I didn’t care that it was dangerous for a fourteen year old to be in the woods by herself at night. That never entered my mind. The escape was the most important thing to me, and it was easy to feel comfort underneath a blanket of stars. If you stare up long enough everything evaporates. The ground dissolves, and the blackness of the open sky has a way of catching you.

When I watched Klute (1971) for the first time I felt a spiritual connection to Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda). Bree is a budding actress who can’t seem to get her foot in the door much of anywhere. She used to be a park-avenue sex worker who was taking calls all the time, but she does that less frequently now for a handful of reasons. It gets in the way of auditioning, and she had a bad experience with a client that left her rattled, but she still does sex work to survive. Sometimes she likes it. Sometimes she doesn’t. There are no definitive truths with Bree Daniels and the film lets her be complicated without any easy answers or resolutions. She’s someone who contradicts herself constantly. The filmmaking decisions in this movie largely tie into how Bree sees the world and moves within it, and one particular element I like about Bree is how she dresses. Outfits where she’s covering herself up and showing herself off at the same time. She wears these billowy blouses and turtlenecks that cover her neck completely, and she’ll frequently be seen wearing trench-coats, but she always finishes these outfits with micro skirts which barely cover herself. At one point she wears a sweeping grey skirt that comes down to the ankle, and on the surface it seems like she’s covering her entire body, but it’s revealed later when she’s with a client that there’s a slit across the leg that opens her entire lower region up for view with a slight re-positoning of her body. When she’s all alone in her apartment she’ll wear these giant caftans or men’s pajamas that are obviously too big on her, but all that extra space is a comfort to a character who wants to be alone, but also struggles to be left alone.  

Bree’s life is turned upside down when John Klute (Donald Sutherland) strolls into town and starts asking her questions about a missing person that Bree has no recollection of. The evidence sends Klute down into parts of New York City that some believe are better left alone. Gordon Willis’s cinematography captures a New York in complete decay and economic ruin. It’s a city that’s not really holding on as much as it’s rotting in real time. A lot of New York films from this period tried to capture the spirit of this city, but few actually did so with the intentions of telling that story through the eyes of a deeply complicated woman. It’s an era of filmmaking that’s usually chalked up to being by and for men,  Klute  offers something different. This is a woman’s story, where every filmmaking decision in this movie is there to represent Bree’s subjectivity. The direction, score, costuming and cinematography are all there to prop up her own mental state, and I found that immediately satisfying and allowed a window into this character that I’ve felt with very few other films.  

In an interview with the Criterion Collection Jane Fonda goes into great detail about her process of becoming Bree Daniels. It’s an excellent interview, and offers brand new context in which to view the movie. Fonda discusses living with sex workers for a period of time and watching how they moved and reacted to the demands of the job, and in the early 1970s it wasn’t the easiest gig in the world to have. Fonda doesn’t cast any judgment on the women she met during that period and she’s still in contact with a few to this day, nearly fifty years later, but she came away from the experience thinking she couldn’t do this character justice. She asked director Alan J. Pakula to cast someone else in the role like Faye Dunaway. Pakula reassured her that she was exactly the right person for the part and he proved to be correct as Fonda is sensational here, giving one of the very best performances I’ve ever seen in a movie. Fonda’s Bree Daniels is all gesture and if you pay close attention to what she’s doing with her body in any given scene she’s searching the room and within her interactions for power and safety. She uses her sex appeal as a tool, and that’s never more apparent than in the scenes where she’s actually meeting up with clients. In one of those scenes she has the man in the palm of her hands, and spreads her arms across his couch as a subtle gesture of power and when this man is on the hook Bree gets payment out of the way, but before accepting the money she asks him about his fantasies and what he wants to do, reassuring him during the entire meeting that his fantasy is fantastic. She’s accepting him, but completely controlling the situation. I have never done sex work personally, but I have friends who have and they are unanimously impressed with how this movie handled that particular dynamic.

My connection to Bree Daniels was always something slightly out of my grasp until I listened to that Jane Fonda interview. While watching her performance, which is so attuned to her body, in these sometimes very dangerous spaces, I recognized through her acting something that I do continuously. Fonda holds onto herself in this movie rather frequently. It’s another contradiction for Bree Daniels. She’s usually walking with her hands on her hips with her elbows out to emphasize her shoulders and take up more space whenever she’s talking to someone she hasn’t met, but she’s clasping onto herself too. It’s like an anchor of support. My favourite scene in the entire movie takes place at a fruit stand. Near the end of the film, John Klute and Bree Daniels have started to fall in love with one another, but this isn’t a film of sweeping, romantic gestures, because Bree isn’t capable of those things. John catches her stealing fruit and doesn’t chastise her for the theft. Instead, he very gently eggs her on about having taken it and Michael Small’s musical score comes climbing in with this really nostalgic sounding trumpet in a very sombre key. The music is telling us something, but Fonda’s positioning tells us more. A medium-close up is used while she’s standing right behind Klute and we can see her face during this entire sequence. She catches herself falling for him and looks down as if she’s really overwhelmed with feelings for this man, but her eyes flutter a little like she just fell back to earth, a broken daze, and she takes a step back. She takes a step back. She’s afraid of what’s happening, and she’s protecting herself by creating distance between herself and this man she likes. She’s not built to give herself away completely, because something happened to her in the past that has made that nearly impossible. I didn’t know what that was until I listened to Jane Fonda’s interview with the Criterion Collection.  

During that interview Jane Fonda states that she considered Bree Daniels a victim of incest. When discussing her relationship with the sex workers she befriended she mentioned that many of them had been sexually abused as teenagers and she talked extensively with them about that aspect of their lives. Fonda goes on to state that incest annihilates your sense of self, that it can completely rob you of any agency you might have for the rest of your life, and she took that to heart when bringing Bree Daniels to life. Throughout the movie there are these little moments where the incest of Bree becomes more obvious. When she sees John Klute for the first time she mentions that he “reminds her of her uncle”, which makes their eventual romance all the more fraught. Even if Klute is shown as a decent man he’s characterized by the way she sees him and who he reminds her of. An incest victim will sometimes replay their abuse in their romantic and sexual histories, and it matters that she sees John as a paternal figure. He could be more, and likely is, but he’s also a reminder of what happened. He’ll always be. Incest has a way of colonizing every little thing that you do or what you feel. She could find the person who breaks the cycle and it may be John Klute, but the movie doesn’t support that reading. Bree Daniels isn’t ready to move forward. She mentions during the many sequences of therapy in the film that falling in love with him scares her, but she can’t form the words about why that seems to be the case. She chalks it up to being afraid of losing her numbness, and that it’s safer if she doesn’t care at all, but that line of dialogue about Klute reminding her of her uncle complicates matters. Bree being a victim of incest also gives more reason to why she would want to stay with her pimp Frankie, played by Roy Scheider. She finds it easy to lean into him, and run back into his arms, because he’s a father-figure for Bree. All of this makes sense to me on some basic psychological level, because I’m an incest victim myself and I can see my body language in hers. I’ve watched Klute on a semi-regular basis since my first viewing of it last year, and it has become a comfort to me, because it doesn’t try to fix or solve Bree Daniels. This film lets her be complicated, contradictory and imperfect. The film accepts every last bit of her, because Klute, more than anything else, is an extension of Bree Daniels”s subjectivity. The murder mystery at the centre is hardly important compared to how Bree talks, moves and reacts to the world around her. She exists and that’s Klute.

Klute ends on an unanswered question. Will John Klute and Bree Daniels stay together and find their happily ever after? Bree knows the answer. Michael Small’s score blares out after over this last image: a small trumpet mournfully wails out something that feels like an acknowledgement that whatever hope there might be in the pairing of Klute and Bree Daniels there’s also tragic compromise. The Sun sets and light gives way to dark, and darkness has always felt like home for Bree Daniels.  

It always felt like home for a fourteen year old girl who would rather take her chances in the woods than in her own bedroom.

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