Most filmgoers may not know the name Jem Cohen, but many of them have probably seen his work without knowing it. For more than 20 years, the New York-based filmmaker has been an observant vagabond, turning his camera on the American and global landscape to create poetic reflections on the most alienated aspects of the contemporary human experience. His most highly regarded work has been shown in world-class museums; in fact, one of those installations, “Lost Book Found,” featured a sequence starring an errant plastic bag that would be quoted a few years later in the Oscar-winning film “American Beauty.” In Cohen’s newest film, “Chain,” which will be shown tonight at the Hirshhorn Museum, the worlds he has traveled in for the past two decades seem finally to have meshed and merged, in a film that blurs the lines between fiction and documentary, personal essay and political polemic, formal rigor and punk rock spontaneity. The film stars the Japanese actress Miho Nikaido (“Tokyo Decadence,” “Flirt”) as a Japanese executive and Mira Billotte, of the District-based band Quix*o*tic, as an itinerant worker and squatter. Despite their different stations in life, they’re both adrift in a generic, nameless landscape. As in his previous films, Cohen invokes the critic and dedicated wanderer Walter Benjamin in “Chain,” but he also acknowledges Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Nickel and Dimed.”
The result is a haunting portrait of two women who embody the alienation, abandonment and grudging optimism of the 21st-century economy.