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.