Cyrobra or: The Three Ages of Tormented Man

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.

Thomas Schubert as Roman Kogler

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.

Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan

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.

PPH @ LFF – Round-up #2

Over the next two weeks on PPH you’ll find a mixture of festival reviews, round-ups, news and features, and perhaps – if you’re lucky – some full-colour photographs too! Today’s round-up includes a look at 360, the rather surprising choice for the festival’s opening night gala screening, and two new works from leading European directors; Italy’s Nanni Moretti and Belgium’s Dardennes brothers.


“In a bad film”, writes The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin, “something goes awry: The script is convoluted or the third act is a mess or Anthony Hopkins is playing a black man for some reason”. Well, substitute “whole damn thing” for “third act” and give Hopkins some credit for leaving his shoe polish at home, but otherwise, in Fernando Meirelles extraordinarily banal 360, you have the very definition of a bad film. A really bad one, in fact.

Filmed in eight separate countries and loosely based on Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde, 360 is a cosmopolitan, would-be opus about how people connect with each other in this technology-dominated modern age. The huge cast of one-dimensional characters (including Hopkins, Jude Law and Rachel Weisz) chase, betray, and have (largely miserable) sex with each other. And that’s basically it for two hours.

The whole interconnecting stories thing has been done before to much greater effect by the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Altman and on a global scale by Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (with the overwrought and schematic but far superior Babel), and 360 brings nothing new to the table. Peter Morgan’s dialogue positively clangs with exposition and cliche, and the writer is particularly fond of populating his story with occurrences that simply would not happen in real life (for example Hopkins’ character leaving the intimate case file of his missing daughter in plain view on an aeroplane table).

The inconsistencies and unintentionally funny moments in 360 are simply too legion to itemize, but special mention must be made of the ludicrous storyline concerning a convicted sex offender (Ben Foster) who all but begs his case worker (Secrets & Lies’ Marianne Jean-Baptiste) to keep him locked up because he is palpably still capable of bad deeds. Instead, she positively encourages him to get out there, and before you know it, fate has presented him with a drunk, emotional recent dump-ee for him to test his mettle against. And that’s not all. Before he enters the hotel room with the girl, Meirelles lingers pretentiously on his cross tattoo, and then the door number 316 (in reference to John 3:16, one of the most frequently quoted references from the Bible). Is this guy some kind of latter-day saint? Who cares as long as there’s a portentous religious connection wedged in there. It’s just that kind of film.

Other than the dubious underlying message that says simply “take a chance”, even if this means unleashing a jittery sex offender onto the world, or abandoning your imperilled prostitute sister to jump into a car with the first hunky minder that claps eyes on you, there is little of substance or meaning on show.

Yes, it’s well shot and competently made, but so are most car adverts. 360 might just have passed muster as a series of one-act ITV dramas, but as cinema, it’s stillborn, and a colossal waste of time for all involved.

*      *      *      *      *

We Have A Pope

Following the torpor-inducing 360, PPH was looking for improvements, and found them in the Dardennes Brothers’ drama The Kid With A Bike, and to a lesser extent We Have A Pope, the latest effort from Nanni Moretti (The Son’s Room).

We Have A Pope boasts a super premise – what if the newly announced Pope simply can’t face taking on the job? – but ultimately ends up as lost, if not more so, than its wayward papal protagonist.

The film begins strongly. In the Vatican, scores of cardinals collect together to cast votes to elect the new Pope, and the process is presented as an amusingly glorified cousin of a third round F.A. Cup draw. The surprise victor is the unnassuming Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli). Just before Melville is due to make his commencement speech, however, he falls victim to a crippling attack of self-doubt, and declares himself unable to do the job. Consequently, a top psychoanalyst (played by the charismatic Moretti) is called in to assess him.

Just when the scene is set for a potentially riveting showdown between Moretti and the would-be Pope, Melville runs away, leaving his inquisitor alone with the rest of the cardinals, and the Vatican’s communications team with an almighty mess to hide from the watching world. This plot point is an unfortunate turn of events which all but deflates the film, for while we get to enjoy the amusing scenario of God’s representative on Earth chilling out on a bus, Moretti is reducing to playing card games with the eccentric cardinals and – I kid you not – organising a volleyball tournament.

The Kid With A Bike

There are some very funny, nicely observed moments along the way, yet the whole affair is so gentle that if Moretti is taking a massive swipe at the Catholic church, it’s extremely difficult to notice. Other than the belatedly brave ending, and the Pope’s suggestion at one stage that he wants to “make changes” (giving a hint that he be of a reformist bent), there is very little incendiary on show here. We Have A Pope is watchable and entertaining, but overall registers as a missed opportunity.

Far better was The Kid With A Bike, centred around an extraordinarily natural performance from Thomas Doret as Cyril, a sprightly, temperamental 11-year old boy who sets out to find his bicycle and then his father, who left him at a children’s home and did not return.

Having struck gold in the past with the likes of Rosetta and L’Enfant, the brothers bring their trademark blend of naturalism and hard-won, low-key emotion to this tale. There are few instances of pyrotechnics, rather a series of tough truths played out with little fanfare and great skill by the perfectly chosen cast.

If there is an issue with the film, it’s that Samantha (Cecile de France), the saintly hairdresser who takes in Cyril, is almost too perfect a character, subjugating her own personal life to look out for the kid, but perhaps that’s just me being cynical. Her relentlessly magnanimous actions are essential to the story, and provide a heartrending counterpoint for the troubled Cyril to bounce off.

After the painful protractions of 360, it was refreshing to be in the presence of such unforced, moving drama. Make sure you see it.

Permanent Plastic Helmet’s dedicated coverage of the 55th BFI London Film Festival will continue regularly throughout the duration of the event. You can follow us on Twitter @pplastichelmet, and subscribe to email updates by clicking on the +follow button at the bottom right of the homepage.