Tuesday, 29 May 2012


Shame offers an unpretentious invitation to be a voyeur. It offers a view of a brother and sister hopelessly locked into their separate and occasionally colliding cycles of addiction, neither able to understand, analyse, seek help or break free. We know nothing of the context that brings them to this point. We are shown very little of the detail of their daily routines or work except those that feed their addictions. At the end of the film we are none-the-wiser but I for one know my emotions have been given a severe work-out. What a ride.

Set in Manhattan, New York, the film follows Brandon (Michael Fassbender) who seemingly has a fairly senior position in an anonymous company in skyscraper. Brandon's boss is David (James Badge Dale) and together they indulge in flirtatious drunken encounters after work and at weekends. The difference between the two is that David otherwise presents as being happily married with a family, Brandon lives in almost reclusive isolation in a high-rise apartment and he is addicted to sex.

Sissy (Carey Mulligan), is Brandon's sister who is in desperate need of love and acceptance and bums her way through LA and New York seeking gigs as a nightclub singer. Sissy has no place to call home and no permanent friends - simply a list of transient contacts. She turns to Brandon for support and affection - the very things he is unable to offer. We are not told what kind of childhood they experienced but the fact that they appear naked before one another once or twice with little sense of regret might suggest some kind of sexual abuse. This might account for their screwed up emotions, or their screwed up emotions may simply be a symptom of the malaise of the pointlessness of their daily existence. The film doesn't invite an exploration of these questions.

We are relentless observers of Brandon's need to experience orgasm. After waking in the shower, inciting a girl on the Subway to experience one herself, in the toilet cubicle at work, in a hotel with hooker, in his apartment with a hooker, through online porno sites, through an extensive library of magazines. Sex, sex and sex is the only thing that matters to Brandon. Adding to the feel of voyeurism, the viewer is serially invited to watch him though windows - either in his office, his apartment or on the 30th floor of a hotel where he screws a hooker as she is spreadeagled against the floor to ceiling window. The sexual acts are relentless but Director Steve MacQueen gives them a detached but choreographed grace so they become a recurring refrain like the repeating theme of an overture - a macabre dance of addiction as it were.

Sissy simple needs someone to hold her - anyone, even Brandon will do, but he is incapable of doing so for more than two seconds. On a night out Brandon and David go to hear Sissy sing and inevitably Sissy and Dave have an encounter which, blinded by his addiction, disgusts Brandon. Brandon's inability to hear his sister's cry for help pushes her to extremes.

His addiction pushes him deeper and deeper - until he teams up for dinner with colleague Marianne (Nicole Beharie). Recently separated, she begins talking about relationships, love and commitment and is astonished by Brandon's view that relationships are a waste of time. She challenges Brandon's nihilistic view of attachment - again perhaps giving a clue to his past. The evening goes well. Later at work, Brandon approaches Marianne, grabs her and kisses her passionately. They leave the office and check into a hotel. Brandon is on course for another score when his mind becomes troubled, he pulls away and in a state of disarray he apologises and asks Marianne to leave. He descends into a fog of inner despair. Although he later appears to engage in some acts of penitence, it is not altogether clear how he moves on from this crisis in the longer term.

Fassbender's performance is first-class - even though his character is thoroughly unlikeable. He displays the power of addiction with graphic ease and portrays a closed person - closed to emotion, intimacy, the need to be loved and the need to love. Closed even to the pleading needs of his sister. There are long periods with little or no dialogue where the anguish on Brandon's face provides sufficient affective energy to drive the film forward.

Shot with a grey and grainy colour palette, this is a bleak film. If continual and prolonged sex scenes are not your thing, then this film is not for you. The way in which MacQueen explores and depicts sex addiction through the character of Brandon is to be applauded. This is however a story with no real beginning and an unresolved ending and therefore for me is an incomplete story. It, like Brandon, is completely self-contained and self-referencing. I am glad that someone has had the courage to make a film about sex addiction but the narrative needs some back story and it also needs to hold out the hope of change and the possibility of redemption - no matter how distant or potentially unrealistic an option that might seem at present. For the first point I'd give it a 7, for the second a 5, therefore an average would 6/10!

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Sound of my Voice

As it was raining at the beach, I made another visit to the Landmark Cinema in west LA and watched this. If group hugs over pools of vomit and then live earthworms are your thing, then this is for you! No, that gives a very unfair picture of the film. Usually I try not to give too much away, but be warned, this time I have to.

I reviewed Another Earth here, which was Brit Marling's first feature and said then that I felt sure we'd be seeing a lot more of her - here is the next instalment, which she again co-wrote. I like the way this girl thinks - and acts.

Set in Los Angeles (of course) Pete (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) are twenty-something would-be investigative film-makers. They are seeking to expose what they deem to be a cult lead by the mysterious Maggie (Brit Marling). The way into the cult is by a selection process and many fail to make the grade. When sufficient 'preparation on the outside' has been achieved, couples are given instructions to drive to a house and use the supplied remote to open the garage, drive in, close the door and wait in the car for further instructions. They are then forced to give over all their belongings, strip and shower with the instruction "be thorough with the soap". They then put on white surgical gowns have their wrists cable-tied, are blindfolded and driven to a different location. On arrival, in another garage, the cable ties are cut and they are led downstairs into a basement where they encounter Klaus (Richard Wharton) who subjects them to the most bizarre handshake routine to feature in cinema. They then join with eight other people - all wearing the same and are invited to bow in worship as Maggie enters the room pulling an oxygen cylinder on wheels behind her. She then goes into a spiel about how disorienting this will be and that the first night is always the hardest but those who have been through it will testify that what lies ahead is well worth the discomfort.

It is obvious that this film is extremely well researched. The rituals, visualisation of the basement, rites of passage and psychobabble that Maggie delivers all feel highly authentic. Maggie claims to be from the year 2054 - from their future. Things have turned a bit apocalyptic and she has come back to select a special band of chosen people to prepare for what lies ahead. It all sounds feasible - even Maggie's apparent weakness is explained by saying that someone from the future is allergic to almost everything of our time - even though it's only 40 years in the future.

The film cuts away to lady checking into a hotel room. Initially she acts most strangely, but it becomes apparent that she is a pro sweeping her room for bugs. Soon afterwards and without explanation, she ends up in the very same sauna that Lorna uses after a swim and initiates a conversation. It is clear the lady knows a lot about Lorna - and Pete and Maggie. It turns out that she is from the Justice Department and that Maggie is a wanted felon. The woman persuades Lorna to set Maggie up - and this she agrees to, without Pete's knowledge.

Away from group sessions worshipping Maggie, Pete remains highly sceptical - although much of the time he makes it appear like a mind-job. Lorna appears more open. Maggie is enchanting - on whichever level you want to operate at. There is more than a hint of some chemistry between Maggie and Pete - or is it just to soften him up? To earn a buck, Pete is a supply teacher at an elementary school. Things get turned upside down when he is invited to a one-to-one with Maggie who ditches the ethereal angelic look, lights up and swigs whisky from a bottle - offering it to Pete. She says she may be from the future but she isn't a saint. Pete smiles and begins to see his scepticism find sound foundation. As the conversation develops, Maggie produces some photographs that feature an eight year-old girl in Pete's class. Pete is astounded as Maggie asks him to bring the girl to him. He refuses as he contemplates the professional consequences. Maggie piles on the pressure eventually revealing that this girl is in fact her mother.

Buoyed by the need to set up Maggie, Lorna encourages Pete to use an upcoming school trip to set up the meeting between the girl and Maggie. Reluctantly he agrees and sets it up through Klaus with strict controls. Things appear to go awry as another 'cult' member appears at the rendezvous and changes things, but the girl and Maggie do meet. Maggie kneels and offers the girl her hand. Eventually she takes it and they begin the elaborate handshake that Klaus has previously used. As they finish, the girl asks "how did you know my secret handsake?" and Maggie tells her "You taught it to me when I was a little girl" at which point the law bust in and Maggie is taken away with Klaus. Pete looks on with incredulity at Lorna whom he assumes set him up. The film ends.

Apparently this is the first instalment of a trilogy and the story is set to continue - which is good. As the film tells its story, it raises many questions of faith, belief and doubt which it quietly parks with the viewer (at least with this viewer). The major one is of course 'is Maggie really a time-traveller?'. Whereas Another World was a film that explored emotions, this film is a psycho-thriller with an emotional twist. As I said, I found it compelling viewing. If you want to see the first 12 minutes in a trailer including diagrams on how to do the handshake, click here. If Maggie is a fellon wanted for armed robbery and arson, how was she able to do the little girl's secret handshake? Perhaps she is from the future......

The film debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival and in interview Marling said

“Playing a cult leader is so far outside of my life,” Marling says. “From an acting perspective, I believed I was from the future, and my doubts were like anyone’s doubts: can I really be an actor or writer? It’s grounded in the mundane and in emotions, but being locked in a time period that’s not your own. As a writer, it’s interesting the way sci-fi can create original juxtapositions in normal human dramas.”

Sci-fi also lets Marling investigate the nature of belief. She notes that both of the films she’s involved with at this year’s Festival are “obsessed with faith.” “In Another Earth, how do you rebuild your life when everything has been burned to ashes?” she asks. “How do you have faith in moving forward as a human being? And in Sound of my Voice, it’s a meditation on belief and the possibility of being more than what the eye can see.”

You can read the whole interview here. I hope we will see a lot more of Brit Malling - she's good. I'll give this 8.5/10.