Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011) – Preview and Q&A

Last night the Irish Film Institute hosted a special preview screening of Shame, Steve McQueen’s latest film, which stars Michael Fassbender (as did McQueen’s debut film Hunger). The screening also featured a Q&A with the Director and the film’s co-writer Abi Morgan, via satellite link-up with the Curzon cinema in London, as well as some sixty-odd other cinema’s around the UK and Ireland.

In the film Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a slick, suave professional living and working in New York City. He lives in a modest, minimal apartment in Manhattan and works at a non-specified office job in the city; but he also harbors a full-on addiction to sex, which takes up a large chunk of his time each day. Not only is Brandon downloading porn onto his hard-drive at work, but he pays regular visits to the office bathroom during the working day, and flips open his laptop to view more porn as soon as he gets home. He also pays for prostitutes when not engaging in casual sex with random bar-room pick-ups.

Brandon’s “routine” is interrupted with the arrival of his needy, self-obsessed singer sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who lands in Manhattan to do some gigs and needs a place to stay. Though he is helpful at first (though not exactly courteous), needless to say he soon tires of Sissy’s attention-seeking behaviour and things start to spiral out of control for both siblings.

McQueen said in the Q&A afterwards that the central idea for the film was arrived at quite arbitrarily, as was the decision to shoot it in New York – apparently he couldn’t find any sex addicts in the UK who were willing to discuss their addiction. While the idea of “sex addiction” might seem like something dreamed up for a salacious TV programme; the film (though never naming the issue) treats the subject seriously and focuses on Brandon’s issues with intimacy, his inability to conduct relationships and his sense of isolation as a result.

Other questions are raised also about the ubiquity of porn, through ease of access via the internet and social media sites, and how easily we accept that these are just facets of how we all live now.  However the film makes it clear that Brandon has a real problem, though it doesn’t make any judgements on his condition. Both Brandon and Sissy are unquestionably damaged people, but McQueen gives us no backstories to show how they’ve arrived where they are. He simply shows them to us in the here and now and lets us make of them what we will.

Both Fassbender and Mulligan are excellent as brother and sister, while McQueen’s direction is confident and inventive.  He has a gift for framing images in a way that makes them appear fresh, or even disconcerting – the opening overhead scene of Fassbender in bed silently staring up at the camera is a case in point.

 One thing which didn’t occur to me as I was watching the film, but has been picked up elsewhere, is the idea of Sissy as a sex addict. Certainly her behaviour is also compulsive, erratic and perhaps dangerous; but I’m not sure I agree with the suggestion, though it is interesting to think about in retrospect. Shame is a film which lingers in the mind, due in no small part to its icy cool tone and moody ambivalence.  A must-see.

Shame opens at the Irish Film Institute on Friday, January 13th.

Watch the trailer:

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)

So here we are in 2012 – and a new year brings a new post on the first film I’ve seen in the cinema this year.  Thank you to everyone who stopped by the blog in 2011, I hope you’ll continue to check in as we boldly go into 2012, and I welcome your comments and thoughts too, of course.

I wanted to ease myself back in with something easy-going and uplifting, terms which Michel Hazanavicius’ new film seems to have been made especially for. It stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo as the likeable George Valentin and plucky Peppy Millar respectively. George is a famous silent movie star at the height of his fame, and Peppy is a young unknown looking for a way to break into motion pictures. Oh and as I’m sure you’re probably aware by now, not only is The Artist set in the era of silent film (starting in 1927) it is itself a silent film. Clever huh?

The story pits Peppy’s rise against George’s charmed life as a famous actor, known and adored by everyone. He has a hand in getting her noticed by the press, which gives her the confidence to audition for Kinograph Pictures. After a succession of bottom of the cast-list roles, Peppy gradually works her way up to near top-billing, acting alongside George on the way. The pair have a mutual attraction, but as George is married, their relationship remains purely platonic.

Things take a turn for the worse for George, however, with the advent of sound. The latest technology hits Hollywoodland (as it was then) and all the major studio’s get in line to use it in their pictures. George rejects it though, and pretty soon he is on a downward trajectory, while rising young star Peppy is perfectly placed to take full advantage of this new development.

The Artist is made with such love and affection for its subject matter, that it’s impossible not to like it. Hazanavicius’ film isn’t just a nostalgia-fest for the silent movie era, he actively uses tropes and filmmaking methods from the period in his own recreation of it. What dialogue there is (and it is pretty spare) is conveyed via intertitles; every movement and gesture is expressed for those in the back stalls as everyone acts “big”, and there is a full musical score throughout.  Though shot in colour, the film was processed in gorgeous black and white ( its images are ravishing) and the period detail is faultless.  Both Dujardin and Bejo bring great charm and gusto to their roles and look like they’re having a ball. Oh and George’s dog (played by Ugge) is an absolute scene stealer.

There are some faults, of course. The film slows and sags around about the midway point, and the storyline is quite banal, though perhaps this is unavoidable given the constraints of a silent film. For all that however, it remains a charming, funny and inventive film; just what the doctor ordered to help chase those January blues away.

The Artist is out now. Watch the trailer here: