Elisabeth Subrin’s A Woman, a Part opens with an image of three figures in single file, arms reaching upwards in unison. The white background and the grain of the video footage create a gauze-like texture, softening the edges of their movement. This visual harmony is immediately unsettled by the soundtrack: the percussive, discordant sounds of Micachu and the Shapes guide the edit. First in fast-forward and then through fragmentary cuts, we watch as the figures move together in a series of exercises, read scripts aloud, and drink beer while cross-legged on the floor — a choreography of bodies, muffled by the music. The video footage then cuts to a close-up of a woman at a photoshoot, bringing us into the film itself. Yet the disjunctive rhythm of this opening credit sequence lingers, forming an undercurrent within the film: a low-level hum that traces the relational shifts between its three central characters.
The film centres on the internal crisis of its woman protagonist, Anna (Maggie Siff), a successful television actor who, at 44, has reached a point of exhaustion with her life in Hollywood. In part, this crisis stems from her frustration with the industry’s representation of women, a critique A Woman, A Part sets up explicitly within its opening scenes. We first encounter Anna sitting on her bed, back towards the camera, as her assistant calls up to her from the foot of the stairs. The film cross-cuts between the assistant, as she flicks through a clothing rack while rattling off a list of updates; and Anna, slowly emerging from her bed, the assistant’s voice emanating from off-screen. Anna’s lethargic movement and unresponsiveness interrupt the flow of dialogue, the even pacing of the film’s alternating cuts. We are presented with a woman out-of-joint with the rhythm of everyday life. The film follows Anna to a doctor’s appointment, where she complains over the phone about the sexist characterisation of the role she currently plays on television. Later, we watch as she stalks off-set, arguing with one of the producers over her character’s lack of dimensionality, “She’s not a real person, she’s like a profession.” The following scene finds Anna reading aloud from the pile of scripts she’s been sent by her agent, pacing back and forth among still-unpacked cardboard boxes. Her Ritalin-fuelled intensity builds, amplified by quick cuts and the soundtrack’s siren-like loop — its single reverberating note. With each clichéd line and one-note character, Anna’s frustration heightens. The camera lingers on the growing collection of discarded scripts as they sink below the surface of the outdoor pool.
A critique of the limitations imposed on female representations can be seen across the work of director Elisabeth Subrin, from her moving image installation, Sweet Ruin (2008) to her blog, Who Cares about Actresses. A Woman, A Part, however, marks the first time Subrin has addressed this critique within the format of a narrative feature film. Renowned for her work in avant-garde film and video art, Subrin combines formal experimentation with an exploration of female subjectivity, embodiment, and performance. Shulie (1997) re-makes a student film featuring revolutionary feminist thinker Shulamith Firestone at twenty-two; The Fancy (2000) re-creates the photographs of Francesca Woodman and their contortions of the female body in space; and Sweet Ruin centres on actress Gaby Hoffman in its examination of the figure of ‘the girl’ in a never-realised film by Michelangelo Antonioni. While her earlier work has been characterised by a certain impulse towards re-enactment, in A Woman, a Part, Subrin traces her own portrait of female subjectivity — one, I argue, that is no longer framed in the singular (Firestone, Woodman, Hoffman) but instead within a context of relationality.
The narrative unfolds with a sense of suspended time as Anna returns to New York City to reorient herself, and to finally clear out the apartment she long abandoned. There, she re-connects with her distanced friends and former artistic collaborators, Kate (Cara Seymour) and Isaac (John Ortiz) — recognisable from the video footage at the film’s opening. Like Anna, the two are experiencing mid-life crises: a now-sober Kate has quit acting and faces eviction due to rising rental prices; and Isaac, confronting a strained marriage, hopes to resuscitate his languishing writing career with a new script — a fictionalised account of their experience in the downtown theatre scene of the 1990s. The characters’ crises are set against the backdrop of the city’s gentrification (a concern Subrin also explored in her 2010 installation, ‘Lost Tribes and Promised Lands’); and A Woman, a Part seems invested in portraying a certain mode of inhabiting the city. In an interview on the occasion of its world premiere at the 45th International Film Festival Rotterdam, Subrin calls the film a “nostalgic love poem to New York,” an affective orientation that infuses shots of Anna watching passerby from the sidewalk tables of Caffe Capri; late-night conversations on brownstone stoops; and rooftop observations of the changing skyline. The framing of Anna within her ground-floor apartment recalls the intimacy with which we inhabit spaces — an intimacy conspicuously absent from the earlier scenes of Anna’s home in L.A. In one of the most affecting compositions, we see Anna seated on a chair in her apartment’s otherwise empty interior, her entire body oriented towards the sunlight filtering through the barred window.
The film’s depiction of female subjectivity in crisis at times suffers from a reliance on narrative tropes (the pretext of acting to explore the self and/as performance) and an over-emphasis on psychological legibility (an acupuncture-cum-therapy session was too on-the-nose). The distinctiveness of A Woman, a Part emerges instead from the way it situates Anna’s crisis within the complexity of decades-long friendships. Female subjectivity is explored through the subtle relational shifts that occur as Anna, Kate, and Isaac trigger past tensions, and renegotiate their proximity to one another. Romantic and sexual desire is not absent, but muted. Like background noise that only intermittently commands our attention, desire is treated as just one more layer of complexity as opposed to the narrative’s driving force.
Through the movement of the three characters towards as well as away from one another, the film avoids equating a portrait of subjectivity with a trajectory of transformation. Instead, the film foregrounds the disjunctive rhythm of these choreographies of relation. In a sequence roughly marking the midpoint of the film, Anna appears in frontal shot, walking among a crowd and towards the camera. An abrupt cut interrupts the peripatetic rhythm: Anna lying on the sidewalk, her ear pressed to the ground. In coordinated movement, the crowd continues to walk around her now-horizontal body. Two anonymous passersby extend their hands to help her up, shifting us back to the ambient sound of the crowd. The camera stays low to the ground; Anna continues walking.