50 Years Later, Klute Still Has Volumes to Say on Sex and Being Seen

Movies Features Jane Fonda
50 Years Later, Klute Still Has Volumes to Say on Sex and Being Seen

The Criterion Collection added Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, one of the first among many 1970s paranoia thrillers to define the era, to their library back in 2019. A cursory analysis might conclude that Criterion’s intervention brought the film back into popular consciousness over the course of the year, but this simply isn’t true. The release helped, sure. But transgender women are owed the lion’s share of credit for the film’s resurgence after spending 2019 happily discussing it on Twitter. This is as much a matter of good taste as of preservation and curation, and most of all a telling example of how cinema sees people when society doesn’t. (Or won’t.)

Klute, of course, isn’t a trans film per se, or a film about trans women. It’s a film about sex work and sex workers that views both with a compassion and dignity absent even in cinema being made right now, as transgender voices gain increased volume and importance in contemporary culture. Sex work is the bridge between Klute’s lead, call girl Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), and the trans critics whose appreciation helped usher in the film’s modern reassessment two years ago. Klute doesn’t require reassessment so much as contextualization for today, an updated read on how the film’s meaning has expanded now that it’s crept up on 50 years of age. Trans women pushed that contextualization single handedly via Twitter and elsewhere online.

“Sex work gives transgender women a way out,” says Willow Catelyn Maclay on an episode of Body Talk, her “ongoing series of conversations” with fellow trans critic Caden Gardner. “For some of us, we’re funding surgeries, for others it could be as vital as making enough money to keep from starving, but for girls like us it’s always an option. If you know trans women, chances are she, or her friends, have done, or are participating in sex work as a means of survival.” Maclay goes on to point out that it is Klute’s portrayal of sex work, scrubbed of any trace of moralizing, that trans women responded to throughout 2019, though she also notes that there are other reasons fueling that response—such as, in her case, the experience of once having existed in fully male environments.

This is meaningful given Klute’s masculine element, which forces women into vulnerable positions and clangs with Bree’s refusal to be made vulnerable unless by her own accord. This is her movie. Pakula makes a character study of Bree, and uses his title figure, Detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland), as a lens for exploring female agency and self-possession. It’s a wonder that the film is named after him at all given how much emphasis is placed on Bree. In Body Talk, Maclay cites a Pakula quote about that exact question. Critic Priscilla Page, whose 2016 essay “On Klute: Beneath The Sin, The Glitter, The Wickedness” predates the 2019 trans celebration of the film, cites a similar quote from screenwriter Andy Lewis. Both were apparently concerned people would confuse the film with cheese had they named it Bree. So it goes.

Klute necessarily requires John’s male perspective, though, to foreground Bree’s experiences as she goes on being a woman in a world dominated by men, and therefore subject to the violence men feel entitled to inflict on women. In the #MeToo era, John’s point of view is actually essential. Any minute of any hour of any moment, in any geographical area of the planet, women risk sexual assault just by heading through a parking lot to find their car. Klute understands this truth better than most films about the same subject being made today: Promising Young Woman, Bombshell and The Invisible Man. (Hat tip to The Assistant and Never Rarely Sometimes Always for translating these experiences with a dynamism their peers lack.)

John does not involve himself in the film’s plot out of any male gallantry or desire to, in the parlance of our times, “grow” or “evolve.” He’s on the case searching for his missing friend, Tom Gruneman (Robert Milli), who disappeared without a trace save for a filthy letter in his office addressed to Bree. After six months of police work stalls out with no progress made on figuring out what happened to Tom, John heads to New York City, takes a basement apartment in the same building where Bree lives, and dispassionately begins surveying her: He follows her around New York as she hooks up with johns and tries out for acting and modeling jobs, and taps her phone. The most privacy Bree gets from John is in appointments with her psychiatrist (Vivian Nathan).

Klute starts John out on his journey by invading Bree’s personal spaces for his own purposes. There’s no nefariousness—just a cold acceptance that the wrongs he commits in pursuit of the truth are part of the price tag. He has to encroach on Bree’s life to investigate Tom’s disappearance. But in that pursuit, something awesome happens: He starts to see. He sees Bree, not as a sinful woman but as a woman making ends meet without justifying the means. He sees the liberation Bree enjoys through her confidence and composure, her clearly stated philosophy regarding sexuality, her own as well as that of her johns. Bree sees John in return, a man made in the strong and silent mold whose implacability belies warmth and kindness he keeps hidden perhaps by design. She starts to love what she sees. She hates it, too.

Bree’s sudden feeling of opening up when she’s made such a concerted effort to remain her own mistress, her own boss, is jarring. In a sequence midway through the film, Bree and John go shopping along New York’s sidewalks. She stares at John, sparing a glance at a father ferrying around his child on his shoulders, smiling as if wondering: “Could this be us?” And she notices the nearly imperceptible smile that spreads across John’s lips when he finally, finally discovers the perfectly ripe peach he’s been searching for among the produce, a rare display of naked emotion. Is this who he is? Or is it who he has become after time in Bree’s orbit?

John is a good man. We’re told as much from the beginning: “He’s interested, and he cares.” But he’s uncommon in that he doesn’t pass any judgments upon Bree. Rather, he’s intrigued by and infatuated with her. Such is her power and allure. Klute, by couching its observations in John and resting its narrative on Bree, invites us to see as he sees and feel as she feels, but it’s the seeing that, for a male audience in 2021, is more important. There’s power in Bree’s disregard of social norms about feminine comportment; she gives not one single shit about how she, a woman, is “supposed” to behave, or comport herself, or provide for herself. She does what feels right. Pakula and Lewis see her. But John sees her, too, and this is as powerful an act as Bree exercising her freedom. It’s an act more men need to embrace. It’s an act that, perhaps, we wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate without the trans women and critics who brought Klute to our attentions in 2019. They began the work. Now, it’s up to men to help carry the work on.

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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