“The truth is there is not truth. There is no big picture. Only random events, accidents and illusions.”
Donna, a depressed young New Yorker played by Adrienne Shelly, arrives at this conclusion just five minutes into Sudden Manhattan. It’s chilling, almost prophetic, to hear Shelly utter these words onscreen, nearly ten years before her senseless death cut short the indie actress’ blossoming directorial career. Shelly made Sudden Manhattan, her directorial debut, in the same West Village neighborhood where she was murdered by an intruder in her apartment. This posthumous subtext pervades the film, with its intimations of violent death creeping throughout. But as Donna moves along a whimsical, winding path towards her own destiny, the grimness gives way to a strange sense of grace in the face of life’s absurdities, large and small. In a way, it was as if Shelly filmed an elegy reflecting on the meaning of her death a decade before the fact.
Shelly first came on the indie scene with her lead roles in Hal Hartley’s indie breakthroughs The Unbelievable Truth and Trust. Her striking red hair, wide set eyes and high, childlike voice made her an instantly recognizable, offbeat beauty. Her persona channeled both the nervous energy of 30s screwball heroines and the street-level charm of French New Wave starlets. But her biggest success came as a writer-director with the hit comedy Waitress, where her distinctly sardonic sense of humor finally caught on with both critics and audiences. Tragically, she died just months before the film’s premiere at Sundance initiated her breakthrough.
In Sudden Manhattan, you can see the beginnings of Shelly’s worldview taking form, a combination of neurotic disbelief and cool nonchalance. Shelly’s Donna can find no meaning in life, distracting herself by counting the zits on a man’s forehead. But her life is sent into a surreal tailspin after witnessing what may be a murder in broad daylight that goes unnoticed by others. Shortly after, a whirlwind of weirdos parade through her life: her lovelorn ex-college professor who now stalks her, a psychic who’s as much of a shrink as a soothsayer, a killer with multiple personalities, and a struggling actor who really loves her, except that he can’t, well, love her. (“Do you have a penis?” “Yes, i just don’t know how to use it.” “I think there are a lot of people who can say the same thing.”).
In a sense, these figures reflect the contending forces churning inside Donna, now finally unleashed: constipated intellectualism, seething alienation, magical thinking, impotence. Set loose around her, they chart a haphazard path of self-actualization as she bounces like a pinpall from one incident to the next. The narrative feels like an act of automatic writing, submitting itself to moments of wacky inspiration: a séance that morphs into a conga line; a very creepy tea party hosted by the killer’s multiple personae.
The result is a two-fold journey of discovery, as both Donna and Shelly find their voice, accepting the absurdity of life in order to channel its energies. Near the end, Donna seems to recognize those absurd energies as her own: “Maybe there is no choice. Maybe there is nothing but what is in your nature to do.” It’s Shelly the actress uttering lines by Shelly the writer, but either way it’s her own voice, that beguiling mix of despair, nonchalance and bravery. It’s a voice that the world was just beginning to appreciate.