Branded with an NC-17, writer/director Steve McQueenís (no relation to the late actor of a generation ago) new film, Shame, garnered that rating due entirely to the fact that it doesn't portray the sex as a joke or bathe it in Harlequin-tinted romanticism. It's portrayed with animalistic desperation and avaricious impersonality through the eyes of a predator who finds his consensual kill far too easy to bring down -- through the vision of a director who has no interest in sugar coating his story or human nature. It's not erotic. It's sad. And it's one of the best films of 2011.
Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender, in what should be an award winning performance) is a strikingly handsome yet borderline sociopathic New Yorker, whose life consists of serial-fucking attractive women. He literally can't help it
Brandon is always quietly, unemotionally evaluating women. Sometimes his good looks get him in the door. Sometimes he just pays for it. It's as sterile and passionless an existence as his job, where he's accumulating a massive porn stash on his work computer to fuel his trips to the bathroom. Everything is sex and Brandon is simultaneously voracious while never being satisfied by carnal successes most single guys could only dream about.
That includes his married buddy/boss, David (James Badge Dale) who does his best to play like a lady killer after work. Brandon's stoic confidence gets the results, but his amiable nature belies the barren landscape inside him.
When his sister, a lounge singer named Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up to stay at his apartment Brandon relents. Though it's clear that he loves her (perhaps a bit too much) he's also barely tolerant of the imposition on his rigid routine of hookers, web cam porn and masturbation. Brandon's regression is present in her, as well--she clearly uses people in the same way -- though she genuinely wants for the emotional void to be filled. That she can't find that with her only family, fuels her self-destruction.
Shame is a dystopian reflection on sexual addiction and intimacy that turns on two great and tightly controlled performances from Fassbender and Mulligan to create a lucidly dream-like film. In the hands of writer/director McQueen, the Kubrickian sense of emotional distance is wonderfully played against the immediacy of a man who is at heart decent, yet incapable of intimacy.
When Fassbender's Brandon takes a shine to a co-worker after an emasculating night that ends with his sister screwing his boss, the eventual date becomes a semi-awkward interview that later culminates in a sadly disappointing opportunity for Brandon to bridge his own emotional/sexual divide. His first real attempt at a genuine connection renders him impotent, sending him into a desperate spiral of sexual indulgence that will never satisfy.
It's all framed by deliberate, austere cinematography of Sean Bobbitt (no relation) cultivating a coolly removed atmosphere which, under McQueen's confident direction creates a self-contained world that lives and breathes as the characters do. He rides a fine line between emotional distance and genuine heart that adds an enigmatic depth to his characters.
Fassbender and Mulligan knock it out of the park with a pair of brave (read: full frontal) and expert performances and have a near perfect chemistry. But the star here is McQueen's narrative and directorial prowess, rendering a brilliant character study rooted in the desperation of the lost and damned.
A Dangerous Method
The underappreciated, genre-bending director of such body horror weirdness as Scanners, The Fly and Videodrome, David Cronenberg has taken a more conventional (some might say more grown up) path in his last few films.
Sure, the element of psychological kink that pervaded Cronenberg's earlier works lives on in his latest, A Dangerous Method, but it is a more formal affair -- no heads exploding; no James Woods committing suicide with a biomechanical gun yanked from his own abdomen, martyring himself for The New Flesh. A more formal affair, albeit one that still finds Michael Fassbender's Carl Jung exploring the nature of Keira Knightly's need to be somewhat deliciously spanked.
Set during the run up to World War I, A Dangerous Method focuses on the relationship between Carl Jung (Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (a great Viggo Mortensen) as they begin to collaborate, giving birth to the practices of analytical psychology and psychoanalysis. Their catalyst is a sort of Patient X, Sabrina Spielrein (Knightly), a Russian Jew and herself the daughter of a psychologist who suffers from severe anxiety, stemming from the physical abuse suffered at the hands of her father.
This leads Jung and Freud down all kinds of strange roads as they become friends and bond over dream analysis and arguing the finer points of their somewhat different views on what drives human consciousness -- laying some of the groundwork picked up on by the likes of Kinsey.
Meanwhile, Spielrein, whose occasional bouts of deep anxiety limit her ambition to be a doctor, becomes not just Jung's research but researcher as she works towards a degree; just as Freud and Jung find themselves sought after by American intellectuals amongst whom their ideas have taken root. The presence of three such strong personalities winds up a prescription for some unconventional romance and historic strife.
Based on writer Christopher Hampton's own 2002 play, The Talking Cure (itself based on the John Kerr book, "A Most Dangerous Method"), A Dangerous Method has the look and feel of an episode of Masterpiece Theater -- not really a dig; it is called Masterpiece Theater, after all -- though one with a few orgasms.
Sadly, the narrative, while keenly written, lacks the confident thrust one typically finds in much of Croneberg's filmography. He's always been a faceted director, able to inject specific tones into the subjects he's interested in while maintaining a distinct directorial style. His best (post-body horror) work combines his predilection for visual economy with strong, layered narratives though almost all of has a psycho-sexual element. He's used that recently, if mutedly, for more conventionally asskicking genre fare -- A History of Violence and Eastern Promises -- but here his aesthetic becomes much more formal. A period costume drama that, despite a couple of strong performances from Mortensen, Fassbender and Vincent Cassell as Freud's lecherous first protégé, Otto Gross, has all the excitement of a hike across Western Kansas.
The backdrops of Germany and Austria do a lot of the leg work for the production design just as any good BBC production would, though the film also suffers somewhat for a sense of real scope. The rich photography by Peter Suschitzky (The Empire Strikes Back) has less to do with that than the budget and stage play roots of the adaptation. Much of A Dangerous Method feels cloistered and stoic in ways even a strong director like Cronenberg can't elevate to the exciting.
It's not for a lack of good performances. While this is Fassbender and Knightly's film it gets somewhat stolen by Viggo Mortensen and, for his brief part, Vincent Cassell. Mortensen's Freud is a great balance of the collective consciousness version of the man we know brought to life in his wonderfully controlled interpretation, and his inherent charisma. Cassell's Otto Gross, a pagan scoundrel whose hedonism can be traced to the rise of the '60s counterculture, brings some lightheartedness to the films overwhelmingly sober personality.
Fassbender, whose great performance in Shame shows what kind of detailed work he's capable of, seems less well suited to a character like Jung. Or maybe it's just that Mortensen's strengths dim Fassbender's performance, just as Freud ultimately eclipsed Jung in the cultural consciousness.
Regardless, Fassbender is positively adept next to Knightley's sometimes flailing turn as Sabrina Speilrein. Her Russian accent is all over the place and the hyper-emoting during her anxiety attacks borders on funny. She's not awful, just trying too hard in a movie that seems to actively want to remain inconspicuously proper in its method. One that feels not so dangerous.
Send all comments and feedback regarding Cinema to email@example.com
Share this article: