Nobody Needs To Know is Azazel Jacobs' delicate portrait of contrasts, between those who are dropping out and those who just look like they are. Tricia Vessey plays Iris, an actress who's fed up. We don't really know why, but the last straw is a movie audition in which actresses dressed in nightgowns are asked to die. They're not given any particulars, just die. We see a dozen approaches, all of them basically the same, but Iris considers the request and then says no, she can't do it, and leaves, capturing the imagination of the vague and frustrated director.
When she says she can't do it, she doesn't mean just the audition. She means acting, or maybe living. She withdraws, holes up in her room, gradually rips it to pieces, and has no interest in returning the calls of her agent or anyone else. Although she does leave her room occasionally to interact with her roommate, or be dragged off to a restaurant, or suffer through a punk show, or wander the streets and bump into acquaintances, her withdrawal is nearly total. She seems devoid of ambition and strangely at peace, free, teetering on an edge that her friends, despite appearances to the contrary, have never approached.
The movie's most interesting observation is how a few surface details can make someone appear to be a rebel and how desirable that appearance can be. Everyone Iris meets wants "something more real" or celebrates counter culture, but they're only posing. Iris's ripped and paint-splattered clothing held together by safety pins is mirrored in a model's designer fashions. The director, unable to locate Iris for the part in the movie, now instructs the auditioning actresses to refuse the audition ("I won't do it," they say, one after the other), trying in vain to reconstruct the arresting image of Iris's true rebellion.
Shot in black and white, the movie is brimming with observant montages of New York and its most fame-seeking inhabitants, but its weakest construct is also the most difficult to overlook: the entire movie is narrated by a meta character who comments on the action ("whoa, this is weird") and claims control of the camera ("look at all these angles," "I have the power"). It's a jarring, intrusive conceit that overshadows the whole film, and I've waited this long to mention it only because I wish it weren't so dominating.
The narration isn't without its own ideas — that our movies reflect our desires, that people are unaware of their ability to move in and out of the frame, just as Iris has moved out of the frame of her life and stepped back to observe the people around her with some emotional distance — but too often the narration robs us of the opportunity to draw our own conclusions. It anticipates too quickly what we'd be better off discovering for ourselves. ("Hey, I've seen this guy before, somewhere.")
Jacobs finds visual patterns in faces as they're being made up, turned into masks, or framed by mirrors. Although the narrator claims to control the frame, clearly Vessey does. Jacobs' camera is understandably fascinated by her, watching her the way Godard doted on Jean Seberg or Anna Karina. She's as commanding here as she was in Ghost Dog and Trouble Every Day, but she's not merely an icon. She's a living, thinking person. Her roommate and the director running the auditions are subtle and surprisingly well-rounded, and Jacobs has a way with images that seems so natural it can be startling. A shot of a coffee cup has never sent such shivers down my spine.