Director Joe Swanberg is working at a pace unseen since the B-movie mavens of the 1930s. Caitlin Plays Herself is his fifth feature released in 2011 (with at least two more in the can), and it feels loosely shot and quickly assembled—but that's not to say clumsily or without forethought. Co-written by Swanberg and Caitlin Stainken, the movie is a sad, simple, and effective glance at a relationship that, more substantially, explores the blurred distinctions between life and art. A lot of the movie's 70 minutes are filled what the title implies: Jeanne Dielman-lite snippets of eating a banana, reading a magazine, rotating compost, writing, rehearsing conceptual theater pieces. "I perform," Caitlin explains of her stage projects, "but I play myself." While rooftop gardening, she remarks of a worm, "he'll have a nice little life and then he'll just die and become part of the dirt." Caitlin Plays Herself feels like glimpses of the nice little life of such a worm.
But is it so nice? Caitlin seems lonely, too, really living only through performance and missing her boyfriend—played by Swanberg (who has acted in six movies this year with four to come)—who's distracted by his filmmaking career, often out of town on the festival circuit, and also probably just emotionally unavailable. The movie opens with them fighting and then he disappears. But during the second half (possibly a flashback, generated by graceless making-out with another guy?), he's back, and the scenes between them are sweet, awkward, funny, uncomfortable and charming—as scenes from the relationships in our own lives tend to be—as they celebrate a birthday, erect a tent indoors, and play hooky from responsibilities to sit on a bench beside a willow tree.
Swanberg, who shares cinematography credit with sometimes-collaborator Adam Wingard, shoots in long takes, never editing within scenes, a realism-enhancing technique that also underscores the static condition of Caitlin's existence. The movie opens with a naked Stainken getting smothered with oil from above, a commentary on Deepwater Horizon ("I don't think your own personal anger is justification to make bad art," Swanberg hilariously berates her afterward); it ends with a rhyming shot, which delivers a terrific punch and a wonderful punch line. What is Caitlin Plays Herself really about? An oil spill of the soul, ba dum ch.