Shame (2011)

Steve McQueen | 1hr 41min

The silence of Shame is suffocating, but it is also where New York-dwelling business executive Brandon is most comfortable. This isn’t saying much given his constant psychological torment, but the absence of open communication is the protective barrier upon which the division between his sex addiction and respectable public image precariously rests. Unlike the two clearest influences upon Steve McQueen’s work, Taxi Driver and American Psycho, there is no voiceover here letting us in on the feelings of our disturbed antihero. But just like Brandon’s associates and family, we too find ourselves cut off from his innermost thoughts.

Fortunately, Michael Fassbender is here to deliver the greatest performance of his career, physically spilling out his emotions in fluctuations between stiff, reticent mannerisms and hunched-over, bestial deviancy. When Brandon’s sister, Sissy, comes to stay, that separation between the two begins to strain, as in her he finds his opposite – a woman who might be as troubled as him, and yet lets her messy feelings and sexuality run free in the open. To him it is a demonstration of immaturity, and so he takes it on himself to care for her, but she also reflects back at him that which he finds so excruciating to face. Tortured by the loud, uninhibited sexual moans coming from her bedroom, he takes off running down the streets of New York, as if trying to escape his mortifying addiction. And for two full minutes, McQueen tracks his camera parallel to Brandon’s motion, never letting him get away.

A parallel tracking shot as Brandon runs down the streets of New York, and then just keeps running, trying to get away from the psychological demons that haunt him.

Through the subway stations, clubs, and offices of America’s most populous city, McQueen is constantly framing Brandon as an isolated individual, who wears his stiff coat and thick scarf like armour. Within the vertical lines of New York’s high-rises and the reflective surfaces of New York’s bleak architecture, Brandon finds nothing but himself and his own mirror image. Just as the city is washed out in cold, blue hues, so too is his apartment, with everything from his bedsheets to its lighting consuming him in an oppressive frigidity, pushing inwards on his untamed, primal urges.

Fassbender wears his stiff coat and thick scarf like armour, repressing his deepest desires...
…of course though, his desires never lay dormant for long.
Brandon’s visage caught in reflections around New York, trapping him in his own mind.

Meanwhile at work, frequent mentions of a rampant computer virus that stemmed from his sizeable digital pornography collection implicitly associates his addiction with a malignant infection, slowly spreading through his body. As if to purge himself of his sickness, he keeps returning to the same orgasmic release, and yet in a self-perpetuating circle of misery, that release also feeds his addiction. While this routine allows him to live in an uneasy truce with his own compulsion, it cannot stand the slightest interference from others. His detachment from the rest of the world isn’t just a side effect of his addiction, but a form of self-protection.

While the long take is one of McQueen’s most powerful devices as a filmmaker which he uses across many of his scenes, he also finds an organic flow to Brandon’s struggle through a reverie of montages and stretches of silent interactions. This is the state in which he moves through life, absorbed in his own fantasies and shame. The first time we find him in one of these trances, which dominates the opening nine minutes of the film, he only snaps out of it when he perceives a cutting judgement as being directed towards him, briefly fearing that his two lives have finally crossed.

“I find you disgusting. I find you inconsolable. I find you invasive… This is what the cynics used to say.”

McQueen using New York’s architecture as character, grading it a sickly shade of green.

Later in the film, we find Brandon riding a subway at night looking beaten and scarred, and in a flashback to earlier that evening we intercut between his movements through New York streets, his attempt to seduce another man’s girlfriend, and a last-ditch attempt to taste physical pleasure in a gay bar. The pounding dance music of these locations clash with the classical strings of the score, pulling us between both his mind and his body, until he finally submits to his carnal desires in an orgy. Captured in a montage consisting entirely of close-ups, the strings continue to swell as naked bodies writhe in the glowing golden light, while in the background Sissy’s voicemail desperately begs for his help. Ignoring her efforts, he keeps moving to his own gyrating and thrusting rhythms, and then just as he reaches climax we hang on his face, only to find it twisted in a pained grimace.

Magnificently edited on so many levels, whisking us away in whirlpools of images that double back on themselves across multiple scenes.

Up until now, we have assumed that his shame has only weighed heavy on him before and after the act, but as we come to realise in this moment, the feeling is inescapable. Perhaps then sex doesn’t just serve as an act of self-gratification, but also self-punishment for craving the very thing he abhors. Pleasure and pain are thereby woven into a single paradox that underlies McQueen’s character study of a man caught in wretched cycle, illustrated especially well in the silent, virtually identical bookends of his arousement at the prospect of seducing another man’s wife. Though the final scene cuts off early when we see this take place, it isn’t hard to imagine what might happen next. All you would have to do is replay the film.

Masterclass acting and visuals combine to create these striking compositions, bleeding utter loneliness and self-loathing.

Shame is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.


Oslo, August 31st (2011)

Joachim Trier | 1hr 35min

Before we even meet our main character in this instalment of Joachim Trier’s Oslo trilogy, Joachim Trier introduces us to the city itself – or at least, the city that exists in the memories of its inhabitants, listing off short anecdotes over archival footage that reveals its streets, structures, and passing seasons. Pieces of Oslo’s past spill out in fond recollections, collectively moving towards reflections on those people and places that are long gone, until a loud, resonating demolition brings the collage to an abrupt end.

“I remember when they tore down the Philips building.”

You can always count on the editing in a Joachim Trier film to be among the best of the year, here opening on a montage of home videos and documentary footage to build the city of Oslo as a character.

The core conflict in Oslo, August 31st is between the future and oblivion, and the mind of recovering drug addict Anders is the battleground upon which it is fought. The titular date might as well be a deadline for him to find some sort of salvation, or at least direction, though with much of the film being set on August 30th, there are precious few hours left for that miracle to take place.

It is a close call to begin with for Anders who, upon leaving rehab, fills his pockets with rocks and goes to drown himself in a river. By the time he is already underwater though, he appears to have a change of heart. He splashes back to the surface, gasping for air, either unable or unwilling to go through with it. The slow, quiet leadup to this moment which teases out his character introduction could not be further from the opening of Trier’s previous film, Reprise, which vivaciously flits through the prospective futures of its two leading men in energetic montages, detailing their exploits in an authorial voiceover. Still, Oslo, August 31st very much remains a piece of his larger cultural examinations, studying the loneliness and failed ambition of youths wandering an uncertain world.

A thoughtful, sensitive performance from Anders Danielsen Lie, poignantly capturing one of Trier’s darkest characters.

Rather than energetically driving his narrative forward, here Trier’s editing deliberately disrupts its continuity, interrupting conversations with jump cuts while dialogue continues over the top, or briefly flashing back to shots from recent scenes. At one point, Anders finds himself sitting in a coffee shop, eavesdropping on the conversations of strangers casually considering bucket lists, potential schools for their children, and news stories about suicides, and as he ponders their lives outside this moment, Trier inserts cutaways to their speculated journeys home, where their mundane futures patiently wait. As for Anders, the space he occupies is often out of focus, leaving him not quite present in his own life.

Anders out of focus, barely inhabiting his own space as the women in the background draw our attention.

Over the course of this one day, Anders drifts between the remains of his old life, seeking out his best friend, his ex-girlfriend, and his sister, though whether because of lingering bitterness or simply moving on, there seems to be little room left for him. Neither does there seem to be a place for him anywhere else in Oslo’s future – or at least it looks that way in his mind. He is more than qualified for a position as an editorial assistant, though when his past as a drug addict surfaces in a job interview, he ashamedly brings it to an abrupt end.

It is just as much through the sensitive, intelligent performance from Anders Danielsen Lie as it is Trier’s thoughtful development of his story that the tragedy of Oslo, August 31st is revealed in all its heartache. The subtle reactions that pass across Danielsen Lie’s face during his quiet observations of others brings layers of history and trauma to the character, earning him compassion even in those moments that he falls back on bad habits. As he steals wallets from coats at a party and returns to his old drug dealer, he carries with him the same shame which ruined his job interview, landing him in a perpetual cycle of self-ruin.

As Anders wanders Oslo, Trier forms these lovely frames out of trees and architecture every now and again.

Those brief instances where Anders can disappear from his immediate surroundings and simply absorb himself in some detached mental state are blissful, particularly in one party scene where the surrounding noise is dropped out to bask in the pure, eerie high of an electronic track ringing through his mind. At the same time, he realises this remote way of living is no way to spend his last hours on Earth. A dreamy bike ride around Oslo and a skinny dip with a girl he just met at a party unfolds with unrestrained elation, bathing in the soft, blue light of the city’s early morning sunrise. Their conversation is light-hearted and free from judgement, so much so that we might even hope within it lies his salvation. Maybe we are just fooling ourselves though that anything that might have happened within the span of this film that could have improved Anders’ outlook. Perhaps he was not looking to be saved, but rather just a taste of happiness before departing.

The most joyous sequence of the film as Anders spends the rest of the night with Rebekah – drinking, riding bikes, skinny dipping, enjoying their youth until the sun rises.

Trier lands the final eight minutes of Oslo, August 31st with a single, sobering long take, floating through Anders’ family’s home, half of its furnishing packed and ready to be moved. With no cutaways or montages to sweep us away on waves of emotion, we are simply left to navigate this fading vestige of his past, soon to evaporate just like everything else. He lingers by some old family photos, tries to call his sister one last time, and tinkles around on the piano, but it is ultimately his childhood room where he finally settles. Through the open doorway, Trier lands on an affecting frame of Anders shooting up for the last time, slowly dollying forward until we cross the threshold into the room with him as he lies down.

A stunning 8-minute long take through Anders’ childhood home, exploring this fading remnant of his past.

The following montage of all the places visited over the past day moves in the reverse order that we saw them, as if letting the past slip away with Anders and replacing it with the new day which sees Oslo keep moving on without him. Unlike the rest of his thematic trilogy, Trier does not temper the cloud of depression that gathers over his film with some glimpse of hope. Like Anders, Oslo, August 31st submits to the cycle of time, poignantly fading away the sentimental memories of history into a melancholic recognition of their widespread irrelevance.

Recalling the ending of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise with the montage of all the places our main character has visited in reverse order, though with a deep, melancholy tone.

Oslo, August 31st is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan | 2hr 37min

Through a nocturnal Turkish countryside of rolling hills and open fields, three cars wind their way around barren slopes in single file, piercing the darkness with their bright headlights. The harsh glare invades the beautiful natural scenery with a penetrating observation, as if trying to expose some grim, hidden secret. Inside these cars is a group of professionals – police officers, a prosecutor, a doctor, some grave diggers, and armed forces, all being guided by two suspects who have murdered and buried a man somewhere in the rural regions of Central Anatolia.

The identity of the victim and the killers’ motivations remain elusive for much of the film, as do the personal trials of the prosecutor and doctor who speak of their own lives in oblique ways. Nuri Bilge Ceylan is in no rush to deliver the answers we seek in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and the pay offs are often subtle, but sure enough, this quietly languid narrative eventually pulls each story together in a meditation on sin, regret, and the passing of one’s transgressions onto the next generation.

In the gorgeous long shots of cars following twisted roads and disappearing behind curved hillsides, one is particularly reminded of a similar visual conceit used in Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry, another barebones piece of minimalist cinema in which a man drives through the Iranian countryside searching for a stranger to assist him in his suicide. A series of discussions inside a car similarly provide the philosophical framework through which both director-writers contemplate death, all the while teasing the possibility of an actual corpse making an appearance on the other end.

For all its intelligent scripting though, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia does not possess the same succinctness or efficiency as Kiarostami’s film. In its first half, it deliberately meanders from one site to the next as one of the suspects, Kenan, leads the men on a trail of guesses as to where he buried the body. The painstaking precision of the investigation can be trying, dwelling on details that carry little to no emotional weight, and yet every now and then Ceylan breaks through the monotony of these conversations with a delicate flourish of style and symbolism. As one character shakes a tree branch, an apple falls onto the hillside, rolls into a stream, and drifts away. It is the first major break from the film’s main narrative, and as it gets stuck at a dam where several other apples are rotting away, it calls to mind both the forbidden fruit of original sin, and the journey of every living thing arriving at the same inevitable location where so many others have terminated before.

In this manner, Ceylan imbues his film with a sense of mysticism that hangs in the air. Later when the men stop over at the mayor’s house to eat, the power goes out, but not long after this happens his daughter enters the room carrying a tray of tea and an oil lamp that lights up her face like a holy angel. Her quiet, graceful presence moves each of them deeply, but none more so than Kenan who begins to cry. As discussions around children being punished for their parents’ sins develop, she stands for an untainted image of purity over whom they mourn, wracked with sorrow for what she may have to suffer. Earlier in the film one police officer remarks with a hint of sarcasm that this night might be looked back on like a fairy tale, and although there is little whimsy to be found here, Ceylan’s collection of archetypal characters and symbols certainly lends itself to a fable-like reading of his existential narrative.

Just as the unearthing of a human body exposes the relevance of such questions to the killer’s life, so too does the exhumation of other secrets via adjacent allegories and off-hand conversations reveal the scope of generational sin through the rest of the ensemble. Kenan’s feud with another man over the true paternity of a 12-year-old boy is revealed to be the motivation for his drunken murder, yet in the act he also ostracises and traumatises his son. The police chief answers a call from his furious wife who is caring for their sick child, though he ignores her pleas and keeps on working. A tale that the prosecutor narrates about a woman who predicted the exact date of her death is revealed to possess hidden depths relating to his own infidelity, ultimately destroying his daughter’s chance at a normal family life. As he tells his new confidant:

“It’s the kids who suffer in the end, doctor. Everyone pays for the things they do. But kids pay for the sins of adults.”

With this in mind, the divorced, childless doctor who is so dedicated to the objectivity of science cannot help twisting a small piece of evidence in the autopsy room to save the victim’s son from the traumatic knowledge of his father’s true fate. As he gazes out his window at the wife and boy, we also notice a small bloodstain on his cheek. Perhaps there is a little piece of himself that identifies with that lifeless cadaver lying on the operating table, with no partner or child. It is remarkable that even in spite of these characters’ melancholy journeys towards existential enlightenment, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is still so elegant in its formal progression, bringing together an ensemble of flawed, shame-filled men over twelve life-changing hours.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is currently streaming on Mubi and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

A Dangerous Method (2011)

David Cronenberg | 1hr 39min

The field of psychoanalysis has come a long way since the days of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, but there may not be so many specialists in the decades since who would make for as compelling drama as that which David Cronenberg plays out in A Dangerous Method. It comes at a stage in the director’s career when he is finding other expressions for his cerebral fascinations in humanity’s most primal fears and desires beyond his renowned displays of shocking body horror. Here, he opts for a quieter, thoughtfully staged interrogation of similar questions around instinct, sexuality, and repression – or at least, of respected historical men professionally and personally involved in such studies.

Joining Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender to round out the trifecta of founding psychoanalysts in A Dangerous Method is Keira Knightley, playing Jung’s patient-turned-colleague, Sabina Spielren. When she first arrives at his research hospital in Zürich, she is mentally broken and suffering from hysteria. There is a lot being asked of Knightley in this role, and in her erratic tics, outbursts, and overdone Russian accent, she doesn’t quite pull it all together. In his remarkable restraint, Fassbender more than compensates for his co-star’s weaknesses though, taking centre stage in a wrestle between refined judgement and primal impulse, or what Freud might call the superego and id.

In treating Spielren, Jung resorts to Freudian treatments of dream interpretation and word association, setting up an educational connection between himself and the founding father of psychoanalysis early on. Theirs is a tumultuous relationship that Fassbender and Mortensen relish every second of in lengthy discussions and disagreements, though in his marvellous depth of field and blocking Cronenberg never lets these dialogue-heavy scenes become so inert as to grow turgid. Split diopter lenses frequent the first half of A Dangerous Method, dividing the foregrounds and backgrounds in therapy sessions that reveal a disconnection between Jung and his patients. In telling his patients to keep their back to him as they speak, he avoids letting his presence inhibit upon their natural state, though in setting up a physical distance between them he also saves himself from engaging too closely.

Split diopter lenses dividing frames right down the centre. A fitting choice to isolate these haughty psychoanalysts from their patients and each other.
Cronenberg’s deep focus cinematography allowing us these crisp, delicate compositions, bringing together wonderful blocking and gorgeous period decor.

It is when Jung and Freud first meet that such barriers begin to break down. The two lose track of time in their very first conversation together, picking each other’s brains for 13 hours straight, though there are irreconcilable differences between their methods. To Freud, sexuality is at the core of the human subconscious, hidden beneath layers of restrained inhibition. To Jung, the unconscious consists of broader, perhaps even mystical elements, and is not at odds with any individual’s conscious ego, but rather supplements it. The aesthetic distinction between both methodologies is evident in Cronenberg’s period decor – Freud’s office is an intricate clutter of books, modern art, cabinets, and statuettes from a diverse range of ancient cultures, crowding out the mise-en-scène with a chaotic sort of intelligence. The neat minimalism of Jung’s workspaces is its inverse, and might even by described by Freud as an image of repression.

The clutter and detail in Freud’s office is marvellous – a strong sense of character through production design.

What ensues from this clash of psychoanalysts is a complex web of transference, particularly as Jung and Spielren submit to the sexual desires brought about by Freud’s dangerous therapeutic method – the talking cure. In meeting an acolyte of Freud who unashamedly began a sexual relationship with a patient and submits to all his most hedonistic impulses, Jung is pushed over the line. Later, another brand of transference emerges in the paternal relationship between Freud and Jung, pertinent to their discussions around father complexes whereby one generation of men is killed by their younger counterparts.

It is a layered screenplay that Cronenberg constructs here, and one that draws a fascinatingly direct line between such reserved historical figures and their observations of emotionally charged human nature. There is no body horror to be found here, and yet Cronenberg reveals that his work is defined less by a disturbing visual style, and more by an ability to draw out a raw vulnerability from within his characters. Then again, perhaps all it took was a filmmaker with an eye for visceral carnal transgressions to find that perverse side to Freud and Jung.

Neatly curated production design all throughout. Cronenberg isn’t know for his exquisitely beautiful visuals, but he shows it off as just another tool in his filmmaker’s arsenal here.

A Dangerous Method is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

Margaret (2011)

Kenneth Lonergan | 3hr 6min

When Margaret wrapped shooting in 2005, it was its famously troubled post-production that began to take over its legacy. While studios insisted on a cut under 150 minutes, Kenneth Lonergan maintained that 3 hours was necessary to maintain the integrity of his artistic vision. Through countless delays and lawsuits, the battle raged on for years, until both versions were eventually released in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

So, is the additional half hour that Lonergan fought so hard for entirely necessary? Without having seen the studio cut, it is hard to say. This isn’t exactly a lean narrative, but the operatic weight of Lisa’s emotional turmoil can be felt in its epic scale, blowing up every emotion to larger-than-life proportions. Such wild fluctuations are carried confidently by Anna Paquin in this loud, effusive role, bringing a performative quality to Lisa’s attempts at artificially drawing meaning from senseless tragedy. As tiresome as her talking and arguing in circles may be, it strongly indicative of a young woman who values her voice above all else.

A big, emotive, and complex performance from Anna Paquin. Lisa isn’t always a likeable character, but she is fascinating in all her obnoxious flaws.

When it comes to Lonergan’s rich, layered screenplay, this is a film which belongs far more to the era of the mid-2000s than the early 2010s, as Lisa’s emotional journey of guilt, angst, rage, and growth speaks directly to a specific kind of trauma that unified New Yorkers in the wake of 9/11. She is not the only person implicated in or affected by the devastating death of a woman walking through the streets of Manhattan, but it does take on a much more dramatic significance in her life than many others involved. With the mindset of an emotionally immature, dismissive teenager she can keep denying responsibility, but as she comes to face up to her culpability, she finds her life intertwining with other strangers bound together by a common tragedy.

The deceased woman, Monica, has only a few minutes of screen time, and yet the big name casting of Alison Janney in this part effectively establishes her as the centre around which the rest of the drama revolves. Her death, set in motion by the recklessness of Americans, becomes Lonergan’s perfect metaphor for the 9/11 attacks, and the fallout is similarly messy. How much blame can one person alone shoulder for this? Must those whose lives have been cut short be held up as beacons of lost innocence? Monica’s good friend, Emily, speaks of her as a tough but kind person, and yet in an early phone call with her cousin, Abigail, she is painted out as difficult and selfish. It would be easy to offer unconditional sympathy to Monica and every other character who suffers so intensely, and yet contradictions such as these only serve to throw us off from any conventional expressions of grief. These are imperfect, thorny humans bearing obnoxious flaws, and while these often challenge our efforts to connect with them, they also effectively ground this story in a complicated, bitter reality.

Behind the camera, Lonergan is no great stylist, but the careful consideration he puts into repeating scenes of heated classroom discussions, opera, and cutaways of New York streets and architecture is crucial to the emotional resonance of Lisa’s story. Through these familiar beats, we tune into how parts of her identity shift over time, particularly in her attitude towards opera as an entirely dull affair. Perhaps it is the way she learns to wrestle with how other people’s emotional states are inextricably tied to her own, or the lesson she receives in listening to others speak, but there is a gradual appreciation that mounts within her for the unique experience of sitting in an audience of hundreds, and sharing communal feelings of pain, anger, and elation being expressed by a single person.

Marvellous shots of New York in cutaways throughout Margaret, reminding us of the larger world continuing to exist outside of Lisa’s immediate perspective.

While she certainly learns what it means to mature, there are some behaviours which remain intrinsic and unchangeable in Lisa’s being. This hot-headed student who we saw towards the start of the film arguing with a fellow classmate over the political causes of 9/11 is still participating in similar debates three hours later, just as fiery as ever.

By its very design as an educational safe space, the classroom becomes a microcosm of the world at large, allowing confrontations such as these over weighty subjects, while sheltering them from any real consequences. In one English lesson, Lonergan is very purposeful in his selection of a Shakespeare quote which compares humans to gods as “flies to wanton boys.” When one student offers his interpretation of this passage as signifying the inability of humans in grasping a universe beyond their comprehension, it is somewhat ironic that the teacher shuts him down so forcefully, instead asserting that his own analysis regarding its relation to the insignificance of the individual against the cosmos is the correct one.

As this quote applies to Lisa’s own life, there is truth in both readings. She may be both blind and inconsequential to the larger universe, but as she realises, at least one of those is fixable. All throughout Margaret, Lonergan draws our attention to the dialogue of strangers overlapping with the main drama in a sprawling, Altman-esque fashion, effectually pulling us away from Lisa’s “adolescent self-dramatisation”. Lisa may like to believe her life is an opera, as Emily so bluntly puts it, and this may indeed be a reflection of her own overwrought, self-centred hysteria. But it is only through this process of understanding how real trauma is experienced and managed that she can overcome such delusions of self-importance, and in the final minutes of this epic drama, finally allow herself to be moved by an emotion expressed by someone other than herself.

Lisa discovers an opera beyond her own life, finally in tune with her ability to empathise.

Margaret is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.