Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011) 
What a disappointment. You won't find a bigger admirer of McQueen's first feature, Hunger, which is my favorite film of the past decade. That film has some of the most potent visuals I've seen in recent film and while Shame does have some striking moments, the film has no consistent way of telling its story.
Shame focuses on Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a thirtysomething young professional who has a sleek wardrobe and apartment but beyond those surface appearances suffers from a sexual addiction. The film's handling of this seems inconsistent and not fully convincing. The first half of the film treats Brandon's addiction somewhat vaguely, giving glimpses of his behavior, paying prostitutes, fucking women in alleyways to progressing it to a type of full-blown mania, which carries some serious repercussions in the film's final act. I guess how you perceive this behavior in Brandon is how you would perceive the whole notion of sexual addiction. That's it's not a quantifiable addiction along the lines of alcoholism or drug addiction makes it difficult. My problem's the source: Brandon is given a personality that I never find authentic. His exterior is that of the urbane ladies man, able to woo the opposite with just a glimpse on the subway. He has an almost overwhelming power to seduce women that plays out more as a male fantasy than reality. It is only when his sister (Carey Mulligan) arrives that this power structure/fantasy is disrupted. This is turn leads to Brandon hitting "rock bottom" in addiction terms, trolling New York City for any kind of sex, which eventually leads to anonymous homosexual encounters. I find this progression highly troubling for it seems to imply that this is some kind of depravity unsuited to him. All of it follows too closely to a ultra-macho fantasy that creates the sense the film and McQueen by proxy, don't really know how to handle the idea of sexual addiction, much less make it a valid addiction. For every moment the film seems to get it right (Brandon's fear of emotional intimacy with Marianne), the end mucks it up.
Then there's the issue a of Sissy, meant to the be the exact opposite of the closed-off, antiseptic Brandon. Her placement in the film is the monkey wrench in Brandon and brings out the titular emotion in his behavior. Why? Clearly Brandon's spiral at the end results in a series of events in regard to Sissy that bring about a sense of self-awareness and a recognition of the uncontrollable urges in Brandon. I find how the film gets there not fully believable. For that, I think you have to go back to a scene near the start that find you either going all the way in with this or looking at it skeptically. It's the scene at the jazz club, where Sissy sings 'New York, New York' slowly and emotionally. The scene shifts between Sissy singing it and Brandon reacting, tearing up, the first break in his exterior. I find the scene almost embarrassing; instead of winning sympathy, I find it lays the ground that McQueen really has no idea how to handle these characters emotionally. There's no amount of visual storytelling that can make up for that moment. A real head-scratcher. I wish this was much better.
Thursday, May 17, 2012
Divisive upon its release at Cannes and Toronto, I find House of Tolerance to be visually captivating like most of its admirers. As for its detractors who find it exploitative and misogynist, I have to disagree. Clearly the film uses the female form (the setting is a brothel after all) but I never find it exploitative and Bonello does take enough time to show these characters' interactions with one another and even sympathizes with their state. It becomes not just about the lush visuals but a examination of these women and the economic and social system changing around them. The film allows these women to express their hopes and wishes outside of the sexualized setting. It acknowledges that these women are in a hopeless position, perpetually in debt to their madam (this notion of having a client pay off their debts is a one of the recurring hopes) and looking at a system of commerce moving from the relative bourgeoisie safety of the house to the danger and disease of the streets. It's not exactly a feminist viewpoint, but it does allow sympathy for these women to come through, as well as showing them as a tight-knit sisterhood that deeply care for one another.
Aside from the visuals, Bonello uses some anachronistic flourishes that work surprisingly well within the film's structure. One is the story of Madeline, The Jewess (Alice Barnole), who's disfiguration at the hands of a client becomes a recurring scene throughout the film. Besides highlighting the way the sex trade is evolving towards a more dangerous vein, it also shows how this community works. Madeline is never thrown out of the house but given chores to do behind the scenes. She is still accepted within the community and it is her story that makes this more than just flesh. Another is the use of music, especially The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin", which plays as a pivotal moment later in the film and surprisingly expresses the mood of the scene and not the temporal distance. Finally, there is the final scene in the film, where the stylized visuals and comfort of the house are replaced with a current Parisian street, filmed in low budget video, as another prostitute emerges from a car to take her place with the others on the street. It's a symbolic end, not just culturally but formally as well.