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.
Here’s some news for y’all. Firstly, over to Cinemart‘s Martyn Conterio:
“The British Film Bloggers Circle has been set up with the participation of major UK film blogs, writers, editors and experts dedicated to critiquing and discussing the greatest art form and entertainment ever known. The initial idea formed from the lack of community, respect and standards within UK film blogging.
We’ve announced nominations for the first British Film Bloggers Circle Awards (the Bloggies – if we’re going for a nickname) with The Artist, Shame and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy leading the charge. Winners will be announced this forthcoming weekend.”
And what do I have to add? Well, despite pretty much none of my own nominations making the cut (I guess the brilliant Ballast was always going to be a bit of an oblique sell for Best Film), I’m delighted to have been asked to be a part of the circle, and I want to affirm my own support for the existence and development of good film blogs written by passionate, talented and enthusiastic film fans. Here are the nominations:
Midnight in Paris
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Tomas Alfredson – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Paddy Considine – Tyrannosaur
Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist
Steve McQueen – Shame
Lynne Ramsay – We Need To Talk About Kevin
Nicolas Winding Refn – Drive
Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Michael Fassbender – Shame
Ryan Gosling – Drive
Peter Mullan – Tyrannosaur
Gary Oldman – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Michael Shannon – Take Shelter
Olivia Colman – Tyrannosaur
Kirsten Dunst – Melancholia
Tilda Swinton – We Need to Talk about Kevin
Jeong-Hie Yun – Poetry
Michelle Williams – My Week with Marilyn
Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale – The Fighter
Stefano Cassetti – Love Like Poison
Ezra Miller – We Need to Talk About Kevin
Corey Stoll – Midnight in Paris
Nick Nolte – Warrior
Best Supporting Actress
Berenice Bejo – The Artist
Jessica Chastain – Take Shelter
Charlotte Gainsbourg – Melancholia
Carey Mulligan – Drive
Carey Mulligan – Shame
Best Original Screenplay
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
The Guard (John Michael McDonagh)
Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine)
Best Adapted Screenplay
Coriolanus (John Logan, screenplay; William Shakespeare, play)
Drive (Hossein Amini, screenplay; James Sallis, book)
The Ides of March (George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon, screenplay; Beau Willimon, play)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan, screenplay; John Le Carre, novel)
True Grit (Joel & Ethan Coen, screenplay; Charles Portis, novel)
The Skin I Live In (Pedro & Augustin Almodovar, screenplay; Thierry Jonquin, novel)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, Rory Kinnear screenplay; Lionel Shriver novel)
Best Film not in the English Language
The Skin I Live In
Best British Film
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Richard Ayoade, Submarine (Director, Writer)
Jessica Chastain, The Debt, The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Help, Coriolanus, Texas Killing Fields (Actress)
Tom Cullen, Weekend (Actor)
Andrew Haigh, Weekend (Director)
Tom Hiddleston, Thor, Deep Blue Sea, War Horse, Archipelago, Midnight in Paris (Actor)
There’s no doubt that Shame is a bold, captivating portrait of a sex addict’s life in New York. The visual style is stunning, Michael Fassbender’s performance – bizarrely unrecognized by the Academy – is mesmerising, and the film really captures the essence of New York onscreen. But its portrayal of women is less than flattering, and this is worth noting. Yes, the focus is on the character of Brandon and his addiction, so we are meant to sympathise with him and see women through his eyes. Fair enough. And Brandon’s no misogynist – he’s certainly the good guy when contrasted with his lecherous married boss. Still, does a film about a man’s sex addiction have to keep female perspectives so muted to tell its story? I think in 2012 we could do a bit better.
You’ve got to admit it’s an awkward one for heterosexual women watching the film, for whom Brandon is a real-life nightmare. Brandon seems like such a catch; an attractive and considerate man, however, he finds open communication difficult, is intensely emotionally unavailable and has a voracious sexual appetite (albeit to a pathological degree). Any ladies out there, hands up if you’ve been with such a man? The memories aren’t pleasant, I’m sure. Women who’ve had such experiences learn to go into defensive mode around men like Brandon, but the film skilfully forces its audience to put their guards down. Nevertheless, the result happens to be those women feeling male domination all over again.
Of course the film needs to include women who fulfil Brandon’s desires – but there are two key female characters who provide important counterpoints to this, women in his world whose voices he actually hears: his colleague Marianne (Nicole Beharie) and more crucially, his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Yet the contrast between these two and all the other women is simply not strong enough to make a difference; not enough to un-mute women in his story.
It’s unfortunate that our introduction to Marianne is sexualised early on when Brandon fantasises about her naked while checking her out at the office; from that point on, we already know that their fledgling relationship is likely to be doomed. During their one and only date Marianne establishes herself as a smart, sensitive girl who doesn’t automatically swoon in Brandon’s presence. However in the aborted sex scene which follows, the camera is statically dispassionate, automatically prioritizing Fassbender (because we know him better) and denying us access to Marianne’s feelings while she struggles to get close to him. Sure, Brandon’s breakdown feels remote but Marianne’s reaction manages to be even more obscured. At this crucial moment, she seems more like a plot device exposing Brandon’s frailties rather than a living, breathing woman.
Sissy’s voice could have added greater balance to an uneven film, yet she is also reduced to functioning as a narrative mechanism rather than a full character. As with Marianne, the film introduces her to us in a way that undercuts her; we first hear Sissy on Brandon’s answerphone, and it’s left ambiguous whether she’s another of his female conquests or someone more substantial. It’s a provocative choice but it also throws her character under the bus – she’s initially presented as an unhinged sexual threat to Brandon so explicitly that it’s difficult to see her side of the story without prejudice.
When Brandon bursts into the bathroom because he thinks Sissy’s an intruder, she doesn’t cover herself up. If Sissy had been a bit less brazen, covering herself up partially yet still enough to make Brandon uncomfortable, we might care about her a bit more. I mean, what sister stands unabashedly stark naked in front of her brother? Is Shame an issue film about a sex addict or about incest? Enigmatic obfuscation is one thing; manipulative red herrings are another entirely.
Also, she’s wearing a hospital bracelet, but this is never addressed – in fact, most audience members probably missed it, seeing as there was no close-up or dialogue about it. Again, here’s a missed opportunity to give Sissy more of a voice, instead of marginalizing her as just a projection of Brandon’s. Did she have an operation? Attempt suicide? So did Brandon never visit her at the hospital meaning she had to come to him?
We next hear her on the phone, desperately professing her love to someone leaving her, though by this (still early) point of the film the damage to her character’s been done. That scene’s not quite enough for us to accept that she’s the inverse of Brandon and have equal sympathy for her. Even her big moment – a bar blues rendition of ‘New York, New York’ – is ultimately upstaged by Brandon and his maudlin release of a single tear. Sissy, like her brother, is love-starved but emotional and expressive rather than cold and silent; however, the way she’s presented in the film, we are pushed to favour Brandon’s control and detachment over her messiness and vulnerability.
In the end, despite Carey Mulligan’s committed performance, Sissy, like Marianne, is more catalyst than character. She mainly serves to expose and challenge Brandon while acting as a foil – she’s addicted to attention/affection rather than carnal pleasure. Thus her self-destruction isn’t in itself important, because it simply sparks Brandon’s self-destruction (if indeed we are to view Shame as a message film about sex addiction). It’s a bit of a pity, really. Remember Jodie Foster and Cybill Shepherd in another New York film about emotional and psychological dislocation? They could have been mere dressing on the window of Travis Bickle’s mind, yet Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader made it clear that these three-dimensional women existed outside their warped protagonist’s jaundiced perspective. In my humble opinion, Shame’s idolatry of Brandon keeps it just short of being a fully accessible and truly brilliant film.
Just like that, the BFI London Film Festival is over for another year. It’s been a staggeringly enjoyable few weeks of film watching, note-taking, tiredness, putting Twitter handles to faces and socializing with some lovely, lovely people. Here, as promised, is a final round-up of LFF stuff: the good, the bad, the sad and the awkward.
PERMANENT PLASTIC HELMET’S FILMS OF THE FESTIVAL
My favourite film of this year’s LFF was Steve’s McQueen’s powerful sex addiction drama, which features an astonishing performance in the lead role from Michael Fassbender, who is emerging as one the very best actors of his generation. It’s not perfect (the final third veers perilously close toward moral melodrama) but it is exceptional, vital, haunting filmmaking, and New York has never looked like this before. [Read full review here].
2. DREAMS OF A LIFE
A good measure of how passionate you feel about a film is how you react when someone else criticizes it. So when a fellow writer sneeringly dismissed Carol Morley’s devastating documentary Dreams of a Life as “The Arbor for ITV viewers” and I flew into a Basil Fawlty-esque rage, it was pretty clear just how much the film had burrowed under my skin. In combining interviews, reconstruction footage and the director’s own research, Dreams of a Life is a dizzying attempt to piece together the sad story of 38 year-old Joyce Vincent, a North London resident who lay dead in her flat for three years without anybody coming to check on her. It’s about a million things (community, memories, loneliness, love, music, race, London), it’s brilliantly put together, and it will bounce around your head for days, if not weeks. Sad, staggering and totally unmissable.
3. THE ARTIST
The audience favourite of the festival was Michel Hazanavicius’ wondrously uplifiting homage to the silent era, starring Jean Dujardin as a devilishly charismatic silent star left behind by the talkies. Although it flags a bit towards the end, it’s technically brilliant, incredibly funny (can dogs be nominated for Oscars?) and totally in love with the cinema.
I had a clear top three, but there were lots of other excellent films I saw that I was unable to organize into a coherent top five or top ten. They included…
TAKE SHELTER – A slow-burn drama featuring Michael Shannon’s blistering portrayal of a family man on the edge. [Read full review here]
THE KID WITH A BIKE – The Dardennes Brothers’ affecting, naturalistic tale of a troubled boy coming to terms with abandonment by his feckless father. [Read full review here]
MISS BALA – More Gomorrah than Goodfellas, a bleak, punishing, deeply ironic Mexican drama about the evils of the drug trade. [Read full review here].
THE DESCENDANTS – George Clooney shines in a moving, yet satisfyingly dark Hawaiian-set tale of hard life lessons from the reliably excellent yet lesser-spotted Alexander Payne.
SUPERHEROES – Michael Barnett’s consistently amusing, moving and surprising documentary about the ever-growing community of have-a-go caped crusaders that are taking, rather foolhardily, to the streets of America to enforce their own brand of justice. [Read full review here]
MOST OVERRATED FILM
I was debating whether or not to include this category, because a) the concept of ‘overrating’ something is essentially meaningless, and b) it just feels a bit like more needless negativity thrown in for good measure. However, when I heard that WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN had beaten the far superior Shame and The Artist to the prize of LFF Best Film, my mind was made up. We Need To Talk About Kevin is a weirdly middlebrow horror film, which overdoes the symbolism to a ludicrous degree, and offers practically no further insight into its characters than Eva: not very nice, Kevin: bit of a nutter, The husband: a bit of a twat. Not terrible, then, but certainly not a ‘best film’. A bizarre choice. [Read full review here]
DISAPPOINTMENT & TURKEY ROLLED INTO ONE OF THE FESTIVAL
After the 360 opening night boondoggle, I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’d been exposed to the very worst that the LFF had to offer. At 10.06pm on Sunday 23rd October, however, as I stumbled out of the VUE cinema, confused and furious, it became apparent that I was wrong.
What was it that had discombobulated me so? Well, in a nutshell, a Surprise Film that had somehow managed to trump the previous years’ one-two punch of Capitalism: A Love Story and Brighton Rock for sheer disappointment. As surprises go, Whit Stillman’s appalling DAMSELS IN DISTRESS was less a turn up for the books, more like finding a cockroach in your soup.
It felt as though Stillman had begun writing it in the early 90s after watching Heathers, slipped into a coma while Clueless, Mean Girls and even, for Christ’s sake, Juno redefined self-reflexive, ironic teen-girl sass, and then farted this out in a half-sentient state after hoovering up the Wikipedia definition of ‘Mumblecore’.
It’s ostensibly a tale of four airheaded college girls at a privileged establishment, but the basics – coherent structure, narrative, characters you can invest in – are entirely absent, and countless scenes sputter to an unsatisfactory conclusion before they’ve really begun. If it deserves any credit, it’s for a singularity of aesthetic style, with the pastel colours and costumes and cloying TV-movie vaseline glow complemented by the relentless muzak on the soundtrack. (A plus point also for bringing The Wire’s tragic Dukie back to our screens in a small role).
Furthermore, it’s not just unfunny, it’s actively offensive, making light of such delightful topics as anal rape and suicide without providing any context for doing so. It’s also rare to find a film that has as much contempt for its own characters as it does its audience; none of the characters seem to learn anything, improve or even develop. Unclear whether it’s supposed to be a parody of college films or simply of its own staggering awfulness, Damsels in Distress is would-be modish, pretentious, vapid garbage that’s destined to become the favourite film of people you’d jump in front of the 159 bus to avoid.
Despite my hatred of the film, however, the distribution company have been kind enough to provide me with its official trailer. Here it is:
DOWNER OF THE FESTIVAL
I’ve written about it here already, but it’s worth repeating that watching certain films first thing in the morning takes a bit of getting used to. The winner of the IT TOTALLY RUINED MY ENTIRE FUCKING DAY™ award this year was Justin Kurzel’s true-life Aussie crime drama SNOWTOWN. Its veritable cornucopia of paedophilia, incestuous rape, animal abuse and graphic scenes of torture were, quite frankly, a bit much for a 10 a.m. start. [Read full review here]
MOST AWKWARD MOMENT
As anyone who has ever been to the BFI will know, there’s a certain contingent of the audience who likes to laugh a little too hard and a little too loud at the most innocuous things, just to prove that they really got it. However, the daddy of all inappropriate laughs came during a screening of EARLY ONE MORNING in NFT1, a downbeat French drama concerning a depressed, humiliated banker who goes on the rampage. The film is barely two minutes old when said psychotic banker played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin (a hangdog genetic splice between Billy Bob Thornton and Iain Duncan Smith) storms into his office and guns down two colleagues in cold blood. You could have a heard a pin drop in the audience. Well, you could have, had it not been for the absolute bellend who let rip a monster guffaw at the first gunshot, probably imagining that by doing so he was striking a blow against capitalism, rather than embarrassing himself and shattering the spell of an incredibly powerful scene. Arse.
FILMS THAT I REALLY WANTED TO SEE BUT SADLY MISSED FOR WHATEVER REASON
Harry Belafonte in activism documentary SING YOUR SONG, Sean Penn Robert Smith-ing it up in THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, low-budget love Brit story WEEKEND by Andrew Haigh, Werner Herzog’s death row doc INTO THE ABYSS and Dexter Fletcher’s directorial debut WILD BILL. Hopefully the chance will come around soon for me to see all of these.
couldn’t be arsed didn’t have time to review everything I saw, so I’ve also given everything I did see a handy score, using the rating system of favourite culture website The A.V. Club:
Miss Bala B+
Take Shelter B+
The Black Power Mixtape B
Martha Marcy May Marlene B
Dreams Of A Life A
The Kid With A Bike B+
We Have A Pope C+
Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai B
I’m Carolyn Parker B
Early One Morning B
The Artist A-
The Ides Of March B-
The Descendants B
Restless City B-
We Need To Talk About Kevin C+
Damsels In Distress F
A Dangerous Method B
And… that’s all folks. I hope you’ve enjoyed the PPH @ LFF coverage. I certainly have, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s festival which will be the first under new Artistic Director Claire Stewart, who replaces the outgoing Sandra Hebron. Thanks for the memories Sandra!
I rarely post stand-alone clips on here just for the sake of it, but I’ve decided to make an exception in this case. There’s a stunning scene in Steve McQueen’s new film Shame (which I recently reviewed for this site) in which protagonist Brandon (Michael Fassbender) runs at least five Manhattan blocks in an unbroken tracking shot, and it got me thinking about some of my favourite ever long takes. One that will always stay with me is the breathtaking opening shot of Robert Altman’s 1992 film The Player, an 8-minute wonder of technical brilliance, Hollywood in-jokes and great wit. Put a little bit of time aside, and enjoy, especially if you haven’t seen it before:
“The subway is a porno / The pavements, they are a mess / I know you’ve supported me for a long time / Somehow I’m not impressed” — ‘NYC’ – Interpol
“These little town blues are melting away / I’ll make a brand new start of it, in old New York” — ‘New York, New York’ – Liza Minelli
There is a scene in Steve McQueen’s searing drama in which Sissy (Carey Mulligan), the suicidal sister of sex-addicted Brandon (Michael Fassbender), brings a bar to a standstill and her brother to tears with a sombre rendition of the Liza Minelli showtune ‘New York, New York’. It turns out that McQueen has always read this ostensibly jaunty number as a blues; a tragic, ironic precursor to crushed dreams and being swallowed whole by an impersonal city that doesn’t care. This decidedly melancholy approach bleeds into every frame of Shame, an elegant, humane and explicit film about addiction, repression and the failure to connect. It could also be that very British McQueen has made one of the great New York – and specifically Manhattan – films; the famed borough a character in itself, with its glacial apartments, criss-crossing streets and after-hours bacchanalia framed with elegant precision, bearing down on its trapped, lost protagonist.
In recent times, for reasons of planning permission, logistics and finance, an increasing number of filmmakers have taken to filming in Toronto in place of New York. Shame – every inch a New York movie - could be set nowhere else. Although research for the film began in London, the filmmakers found that sex addiction was barely recognised in the UK, and in relocating to New York found a network of groups far more willing to divulge information and a confessional culture more in tune with ideas of self-help and therapy.
When we meet Brandon for the first time, he is far away from that stage of self-recognition. His story begins with the pursuit of anonymous sex on a subway, his shark eyes flickering with automated lust at a pretty girl sat across from him. The encounter has a fly-on-the-wall danger, and is shot with the rough and ready rawness of a of Bruce Davidson photograph.
Before long, we’re introduced to the corporate blandness of his work existence which recalls the sour milieu mined in Bret Easton Ellis’ ‘American Psycho’, with its yuppie jockeying and casual objectification of women. In another NY nod, Brandon’s self-destructive nocturnal impulses and addictive, repetitive behaviour also echo the protagonist of litearary enfant terrible Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel ’Bright Lights, Big City’. His numbing routine of porn-surfing, onanism and emotionless sexual encounters is established briskly by McQueen, so that within the opening five minutes, a shot of a closing cubicle door becomes visual shorthand for Brandon masturbating. In the scenes in which Brandon goes out on the town, the modernity of the era is subtly constrasted with an evocative feel for New York’s more outwardly sleazy past through the carefully selected soundtrack. Blondie’s ‘Rapture‘ and Tom Tom Club’s ‘Genius of Love‘ hark back to the Lower East Side grime of the pre-gentrification early-80s. Later, in Brandon’s apartment, Chic’s propulsive ‘I Want Your Love‘ goes even further back to the late 70s and the exuberance and openness of the Midtown-focused pre-AIDS disco era.
Brandon and Sissy’s relationship is also framed and informed by geography; neither are native New Yorkers. Sissy is peripatetic, having wandered in from L.A., while Brandon reveals on a date that he was born in Ireland and relocated to New Jersey before coming to New York. These are the “bridge and tunnel” kids, a derisive term native New Yorkers reserve for those who come in from the suburbs. It’s a small detail, but underlines their outsider nature. “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place”, says Sissy, the scars on her wrists testament to her turbulent past. McQueen and co-screenwriter Morgan are not given to over-exposition, refraining from providing anything so straightforward as “a cause” for Brandon’s – or indeed Sissy’s – behaviour. We don’t know the details of their upbringing; their emotional dislocation is simply amplified by their outsider nature.
The scenes between Mulligan and Fassbender carry an unsettling charge, enhanced considerably by their close proximity and McQueen’s intimately tight framing. While never quite reaching the levels of incestuousness exhibited by Al Pacino’s Tony Montana toward his younger sister in Brian de Palma’s Scarface, one cannot help but make the unsavoury connection because sex is always on Brandon’s mind. The scene in which Brandon’s boss seduces Sissy in Brandon’s apartment, while Brandon listens in is a masterpiece of jittery, unresolved tension, and brilliantly acted by Fassbender.
In the astonishing sequence which follows, a furious Brandon goes for a late-night run to burn off energy. The camera tracks Brandon across at least five avenues from East to West, and is striking in its revelation of the relationship between space and character. The neon ‘Landmark’ New York of Times Square and Manhattan Mall is teasingly relegated to the backdrop, reminiscent of the poetically realised London of Mike Leigh’s Naked. The camera leaves Brandon as he continues into the night, westward toward the Hudson which separates him from the Jersey of his past. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt brings a steely, metallic gleam to everything he shoots, recalling David Cronenberg’s psycho-sexual odyssey Crash, and enhancing the film’s Ballardian psychogeography; Brandon’s mental state is inextricably linked to his environs.
Although McQueen’s style here is more conventional than in his film debut Hunger, he nevertheless remains a striking formalist, with repeated use of long takes (including a memorable, funny date scene shot with a near-static camera in real time; think arthouse Sex and the City) and exceptional framing, including the painterly opening shot of a contemplative Brandon partially wrapped in an electric blue blanket. Structurally, Shame plays as a series of city vignettes, as days blend into night and rote encounters unfold in the melancholy half-light that mirrors Brandon’s emotional dislocation. Late in the film, one bravura, disturbing sequence that signals Brandon’s sexual breaking point (and, with just a hint of moral prurience, nods toward William Friedkin’s gay S&M-themed Cruising) plays cunningly with chronology and would make a fine short on its own.
Indeed, in mainstream (studio) cinema, perhaps only Richard Brooks’ disturbing Looking For Mr Goodbar (still unavailable on DVD), in which a schoolteacher embarks on a ‘liberating’, doomed quest for anonymous sex, and the aforementioned Cruising, have matched McQueen’s film for adequately conveying the conflation of sex and danger inherent and seemingly interwoven in the city’s underbelly. New York is there for Brandon to use, and he takes advantage, compulsively; down low under bridges, up high in glassy apartments.
At heart, Shame is nothing less than a modern tragedy in which the commodification of sex is internalized, effecting a coruscating death of the soul. Whereas the LFF’s dismal opening film 360 made a facile nod to the “interconnectivity of the modern world” with startling revelations including: people use mobile phones, search engines and aeroplanes, Shame investigates, in explicitly honest fashion, how access inspires excess and spiritual remoteness within a vast metropolis. This in itself is not a revolutionary idea, yet the key is in the formulation of Brandon’s character. Neither swivel-eyed social malcontent nor buccaneering predator like his married boss (who peddles the yuppie lechery of ages), Brandon’s evident social skills and outward charisma underline the locked-in nature of his problem, and Fassbender’s extraordinary, chameleonic performance communicates sadness and, yes, shame with heartbreaking accuracy.
Although Shame is a bleak film, it’s not without hope as we can discern from a teasingly ambiguous coda that harks back to the opening scene. What is certain is that McQueen has coaxed a stunning performance from a third lead alongside Fassbender and Mulligan: New York itself, in all its angular, criss-crossing, sleazy, metallic glory. The city that never sleeps can be a lonely, lonely place.
Hundreds of eager journalists and bloggers crammed into Leicester Square’s Odeon cinema this morning to enjoy pastries, chocolate and each others’ company, as the full programme was released for this year’s BFI London Film Festival – the esteemed event’s 55th instalment. This year is notable for being the last that long-serving artistic director Sandra Hebron will be in charge of. Following a speech by BFI director Amanda Nevill, Hebron introduced a tantalising clip reel comprising some upcoming festival highlights.
The festival, which runs from 12-27 October, and will be hosted in selected cinemas across London, opens with Fernando Meirelles’ multi-character opus 360 and concludes with a veritable Terence-fest: Davies’ much-anticipated adaptation of Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea. (Watch out for cameos from Stamp, Howard and Venables).
A more considered LFF preview will appear on PPH in the coming weeks, but for now, here’s a hastily cobbled together list of some films I’m particularly looking forward to.