You could be forgiven for thinking that a film about how two people spend their last three weeks before an asteroid collides with Earth would be a sci-fi drama. But despite the high-concept, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is nothing more or less than a delightful romcom. Rammed with wit and warmth, it delivers heartily on the rom (the apocalypse acting as a metaphysical Cilla Black) and com (the apocalypse is a rich source of fatalistic humour) fronts.
This is not a sober Melancholia-style cataclysm, it’s more like ‘Naked Gun doesn’t do apocalypses but if it did….’ All is good-natured chaos, from the end-of-days countdown on the nightly news to the public posters offering the opportunity to fuck a virgin. Plodding round this circus is Dodge (Steve Carell) who’s in no mood to seize the moment as his wife has just literally run off. While his middle-aged friends throw Eyes Wide Shut-for-embarrassing-dad-style parties where they take acid and tear up the rulebook on fidelity, he stoically continues to go into work. The only revelation that takes root as his certain death grows closer is that he should seek out his high-school sweetheart, the lost love of his life.
So far, so downbeat, but then Keira Knightley appears in full Clementine from Eternal Sunshine…, Manic Pixie Dream Girl mode. Her character Penny is a record-loving, impulsive, hypersomniac and the pair end up involved in a buddy-movie road trip as they try to get to the people that matter the most before it’s too late. It’s no surprise that Carell, whose eyes are brown pools of kindness mingled with weariness, holds his own as a downtrodden wit with a big heart (See Little Miss Sunshine and last year’s Crazy Stupid Love for previous form). The revelation is Knightley who, although not quite lost in her character, has an infectious energy that sets the pace. Both she and the film possess the good-natured gait of a puppy that’s never been kicked and they race towards the finishing line with giddy abandon.
While the film is about the blossoming relationship between this oddball duo, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World gives generous time to the supporting cast and their subplots. Whether it’s the emotional truck driver for whom three weeks is still an eternity to wait to bid goodbye to the cruel world or Patton Oswalt’s opportunistic sleaze-ball bowled over with excitement at abounding sexual openness, these colourful characters provide regular blasts of entertainment. A climate of hysteria rises and falls and our leads’ ability to empathise with each other in these extreme circumstances makes us root for them.
Some developments feel unlikely but the logic of ‘this is the apocalypse’ sucks up and owns all bizarre swivels. Warmth pulses from every frame. Penny’s record love manifests in classic after classic. Wardrobe and colour palette are all gentle pastels and solid primaries. Liberally sprinkled are cameos so delightful and unexpected that your face will break out in smiles.
It’s amusing and a little odd that such a tragic concept is given such wholesome treatment (there’s a white picket fence knocking about) but once you see through the disguise of the subject to a solid and heartfelt romcom, all is well. This is a well-written, warm treat of a film about a pair whose unlikeliness is aspirational to anyone who wants to believe that love can grow against all odds.
Contributor Sophie Monks Kaufman can be followed on Twitter @Sopharsogood.
“Everyone wants an alter ego who can do stuff they can’t.” So speaks Mark Hogancamp. He has a powerful incentive to focus on the contents of a parallel existence. Ten years before Jeff Malmberg’s cameras found him, he, aged 38, had every memory beaten out of his head after five men pounced on him outside a bar. He spent nine days in a coma, then forty in hospital relearning how to walk and talk from scratch. Of his life until that point, “only single frames” were left.
So far, so tragic but let’s return to that point about alter egos. When the Medicaid ran out, Mark, a talented artist before the attack, developed his own form of therapy. He built a miniature World War II-era Belgian town, which he christened by combining the first syllables of his name with the first syllables of two beloved female names (Mark + Wendy + Colleen = Marwencol). He used anything he could get his skilled hands on to furnish the town with all plausible conveniences, and a few implausible ones. A time machine is made from an eviscerated VCR player, its control panel is a Nokia phone cover and the seat a phone holder. The whole effect is a masterpiece of industry and attention-to-detail. Imagine a tiny Borrowers-style universe that doubles as a constant visual reminder of Mark’s need to hide in fantasy.
If the infrastructure of Marwencol is one source of awe then its inhabitants are another. The town is populated by dolls, each possessing a well-developed character and backstory. Some are fictionalised versions of the people he knows while others are fantastical creations. Storylines are devised and photographed and, once again, provide a mirror to his mood. Mark’s yearnings for female companionship materialise in weddings and love triangles while violent fights take place when Mark is angry about what happened to him.
Malmberg got ninety percent of his film’s quality by stumbling upon Mark Hogancamp. He adds the extra ten percent by whole-heartedly embracing the logic that governs Mark’s two-pronged reality. The narrative is broken into sub-titled chapters, each introduced by a doll propping up a cue card. Malmberg himself ends up with a doll incarnation running about in Marwencol. This is an honour reserved for those who have earned Mark’s trust.
Although mainly a showcase for Mark’s story, told through his robotic monotone and the scanned-in photo narratives that provide a timeline for Marwencol, Malmberg successfully provides the social context to Mark’s strange life through a cross-section of revealing interviews. Supportive friends and family talk of Marwencol almost as seriously as Mark does, while a doctor gives the blunt lowdown on the physical and mental damage he has suffered.
What is truly compulsive about this documentary is its timing. At ten years since the trauma and the consequent creation of Marwencol, Mark is ready to challenge the confines of his bubble universe. The film has progressed incrementally to this narrative pivot reflecting Mark’s slow return from the fringes of life. At the cusp of a big personal leap, he is self-aware and conflicted. “I don’t want to get hurt, mentally or emotionally or physically ever again”, he says. It’s a sentiment people frequently voice, but most have never had their worst fears come true in such violence.
Having started the film by detailing the attack in all its senseless brutality, Malmberg ensures that when opportunity comes knocking for Mark, you’ve never wanted anything to work out so badly. The temptation to print a T-shirt with his face and the words, “Go on, my son” written underneath is immense.
By leading the audience gently to this point and by clearly illustrating Marwencol as a work of creative genius and refuge from the storms and uncertainties of real people, Marwencol does an incredible thing. It shows mental illness as a logical response to terrible events. But more than that, it provides a rounded character study of an extraordinary man, it shows how kindness can mean colluding in someone’s fantasy world, and it shows how (although in one respect trauma never disappears) a traumatised person can develop around this bullet in their brain.
In an industry saturated by films that claim to be about issues they merely name-check, Marwencol is an unmissable work of documentary and humanity. I defy anyone to watch it and not come away feeling deepened, humbled and hopeful in a way too profound to fully describe.
Marwencol is now available on Netflix. Contributor Sophie Monks Kaufman can be followed on Twitter @sopharsogood.
Ladies and gentleman, please put your hands together for the three troubled and taciturn male heroes of 2012 to date: Cyril Catoul from The Kid With A Bike, Roman Kogler from Breathing and Brandon Sullivan from Shame. In this article, I shall contrast their different brands of turmoil and speculate as to what fate has in store for them as an uber-amalgam character who we’ll call Cyrobra (even if it sounds like the name of a monster in a Greek myth).
First up is Cyril, the “Cy” portion of this creature. Disappointment has come early for the 11-year-old, who’s forced to stare down the barrel of his father’s abandonment with only a packet of crisps to cushion the rejection. Motherless and as good as fatherless, all that stands between Cyril and the children’s home we see him fleeing is a caring hairdresser/guardian angel. The coupling of harsh reality with almost incongruous good fortune is a feature we’ll also see when Cy grows into Ro.
For now, we’ll stick with Cy, who, perhaps because of his age, is the most demonstrative of our heroes. There’s rarely a scene that doesn’t feature him kicking, screaming, shouting or cycling furiously. His reaction to misfortune is instinctively physical. Thomas Doret plays him like a snarling cornered animal. Life hasn’t treated him reasonably and he’s returning the disfavor.
Transport is a revealing, if essentially transitory, medium throughout Cyrobra’s screen life. In TKAB, Cy’s little bike – like Wendy’s dog Lucy in Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy - serves as a symbol of emotional and social wellbeing. It’s no coincidence that the kid loses both his dad and bike in one cruel stroke. The guardian angel restores the bike and with it hope. Later, the bike is stolen by local Bad Sorts that Cyril subsequently falls in with but, in keeping with her job description, the guardian angel comes through, and at the end of the film we see them enjoying a joint cycle ride. She is keeping him company in his world, on his terms. He travels alone no more.
Breathing opens with how life plausibly could have gone for Cyril if the guardian angel left or evaporated (hard to know where you are with fairy-tale creations). In her absence, it would have been back to the children’s home where the combination of bad luck and feral instincts might have driven him, like Roman, to an act for which punishment is a juvenile detention centre.
Now 19, and in his “Ro” stage, our hero has subdued his wild physicality to the point where he is almost robotic in motions and speech. Only the odd freak-out hints at a molten core. Eyes and hair have changed colour but growing up is a funny business. Physically, he is still wiry and watchful and having lost his sympathetic kid stature, people treat the inscrutable man-boy with a little more hostility.
Thomas Schubert plays his character with a captivating stillness, letting narrative progress provide the context. His father is never mentioned and his mother gave him up when he was a baby. Like Cyril, he is effectively an orphan. The narrative has a break in store for him but, unlike with Cyril, this comes not from a fantasy savior, but through his own quiet development. In this respect, Breathing, like its protagonist, is the more grown up of the two films.
Roman has also outgrown the bike as a mode of transport and instead spends a sizable amount of the screen time aboard a train commuting to and from work. It is on one of these necessary trips that his dreary life gets a fizzling injection of age-appropriate excitement. A pretty American backpacker takes a shine to our hero and they flirt over a beer bought from the conductor. It is a joyful scene imbued with idea that, despite his past, Roman at age 19 has it all to play for. In the next scene he is humiliated by a guard, but even this brutal editing cannot erase the possibility of what went before. As in Cyril’s childhood, relationships explored in transit give us an idea of the character’s potential.
Looking at where Brandon is at the beginning of Shame rather punctures our hopes for where Cyrobra may have ended up. Although at this “Bra” stage of life, he has found a place for himself in the world outside of institutions it has come at the price of meaningful relationships. As Brandon, Michael Fassbender channels both the assured stillness of Roman and – during the compulsive sex scenes – the frantic energy of Cyril.
Fassbender’s performance is a masterclass in micro-acting. The passing years have taught our hero to hone the art of turmoil containment until it will not be contained, and rises explosively out of him in sex addiction. Brandon lives out the lonely life that might have been the fate of Cyril without a guardian angel or Roman without the self-development. Shame is the most adult film of the three, offering, in the context of our amalgam character, the conclusion that TKWAB and Breathing were both false dawns, high points in a cycle rather than hope-filled end points.
A bit of a cognitive leap is required to make “Bra” an extension of the previous characters. For one, he has a sister and for two, his relationship with his parents, though now defunct, seems not to have been a clear-cut case of abandonment. Director Steve McQueen is deliberately vague about Brandon’s background, and prefers instead to focus on the addiction rather than its genesis. Henceforth, the strange attitude that Brandon and his sister Sissy have to each other’s nudity and Sissy’s revealing line, “we’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place”, suggest that theirs wasn’t the rosiest of family homes. There may well have been abuse.
Whatever the cause, the darkness that Brandon carries around with him and the limits it sets on his personal relationships means that his revelatory transport scene is significantly less tender and innocent than his predecessors’. Like Roman, he commutes to work, underground on the subway rather than overground by train, and it is here that his roaming eye alights on a striking redhead. She seems to reciprocate his lustful interest until something in the intense carnality of his gaze causes her to flee in fear. There is no space in Brandon’s tormented headspace for positive, nurturing relationships. All he can manage are brief animal exchanges.
So, what will become of Cyrobra and those like him; men with difficult pasts that have not learned to communicate and instead alternate between stoical silence and destructive outbursts? Let’s infuse the core meanings of TKWAB, Breathing and Shame and draw a conclusion coloured by the latter’s ambiguous narrative shape. The pain, illustrated by Brandon’s rain-soaked breakdown, will keep on coming but so too will the bursts of self-determination that led to Roman’s ascension and the blind luck that landed Cyril an angel to love. There is hope for these people – or rather our strangely named amalgam character – but it is just one part of a frustrating emotional cycle.
Shame is available on DVD now. Contributor Sophie Monks Kaufman can be followed on Twitter @sopharsogood.