Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Sex addiction has yet to get a serious film treatment until "Shame," the sophomore feature from filmmaker Steve McQueen. Generally we feel inclined to put a comic spin on anything that taboo (see the adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's sex-addiction novel "Choke"), but here we see how it ruins lives and relationships.
Like any addiction, main character Brandon (Michael Fassbender) becomes preoccupied with sex, participating in everything from prostitution to Internet pornography to relieving himself in the bathroom at work. The film's first act is a long sample of how sex dominates most of Brandon's thoughts as he goes through a typical week, a character study in perversion but not one that demonizes his habit so much as displaying it for what it is. We don't feel bad for Brandon nor do we despise him. Shame, aptly, might be the most applicable emotion.
As with any character study, a lot hinges on Fassbender's performance, and he delivers. Brandon isn't given a line of dialogue for what feels like ages at the beginning, yet Fassbender perfectly (albeit somewhat horrifyingly) telegraphs his internal thought process. McQueen is in perfect sync, injecting us into Brandon's brain as best he can by subtly sexualizing a lot of what Brandon sees. A sequence on the subway is entirely silent but especially powerful as Brandon eyes a woman across the way.
Stretches of "Shame" will bore some viewers to death, but it's a sacrifice McQueen makes to convey the solitude and loneliness of a man with Brandon's condition. His lifestyle simply does not allow for extended periods of human contact or long-term relationships. When he makes efforts to do so in the film, it's painstaking for him. Much of the movie feels superfluous (it could rank among the longest 100 minutes in film history), but to some extent we cannot truly understand Brandon unless we are fully treated to that isolation, to a complete lack of interest in anything but sex or something that might lead to sex or sexual satisfaction.
After our first series of trials observing Brandon, McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan drop in Sissy (Carey Mulligan), Brandon's equally troubled (in a whole other way) sister. Her on-screen introduction features her completely nude and arguing with Brandon in the bathroom, which sets the table for their relationship. Sissy is the opposite of Brandon, a jazz singer completely dependent on human contact and emotional connection. Her intrusion on Brandon's life understandably causes him to get angry and emotionally volatile.
Brandon is not entirely averse to change, but he struggles mightily with it. The third act is an experiment that achieves both positive and negative results and digs into the question of whether or not one can personally overcome something of this magnitude. Never, however, does the film confront its themes or questions through dialogue. Only once does Sissy even allude to Brandon's perversion, telling him he has no right to chastise anyone else's sexual choices.
Fassbender and Mulligan ultimately anchor "Shame." Without them, the film would be deemed powerfully told, but completely un-engaging. Their raw performances and willingness to bare all physically and emotionally create the hook that makes such a brooding character study work. McQueen certainly deserves credit as well for working with them to create captivating performances.
The subject matter of "Shame" is not an easy one from a filmmaking perspective as well as a cultural one, but McQueen does an honorable job with it. He recognizes which traditional storytelling practices he must sacrifice in order to truly capture sex addiction tonally and emotionally.

Monday, July 16, 2012


There's a certain dramatic element that Dennis Villeneuve gives to the most inordinate things in his films. Having previously watched his earlier movie Maelstorm featuring the girl from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Marie-Josée Croze, I expected some levels of weirdness to this film too. After all, it was this same guy who gave so much personality to a dead (rather half-dead) fish that was about to be spliced open. He actually gave the fish philosophical lines of dialogue! But that was before I knew Incendies was based on a really famous play, not just a filament of Denis' own writing.
Incendies is the kind of film that one walks away from feeling emotionally drained, one where it stays in the viewer's mind for days on end. Like an intense personal experience, it takes a lot to come to grips with the film's story, a moving plot full of twists and catharsis. Denis has made four films in Canada, but this is the first one to have a major international release, most importantly in America. Right now, I see no reason why Villeneuve, or any of the actors for that matter, shouldn't have a great future ahead of them.
Incendies, based upon the play Scorched written by Wajdi Mouawad is set against a mystery to be unraveled so slowly, bringing together seemingly disparate events together in shocking fashion by the time we're through, the narrative is split into two different timelines, with the current one being the twins' journey to an unnamed Middle Eastern country in search for clues to their unknown father and brother, while with each milestone achieved of sorts, we get to see a flashback to the time of their mother, brought up in a harsh environment involving the staining of family honour, as well as religious zealots and militants who set her off in a tale of an avenging angel, and sacrifice.
Nawal Marwan, the mother requests in her will, to be buried naked with her face down and her tomb without a gravestone; further, she leaves three sealed envelopes addressed to the twins' father that they believed had deceased in the Middle East; to their unknown brother; and the last one to themselves to be opened only after the delivery of the other two. Then, they may put a gravestone on her tomb. Simon, her son is reluctant to respect his mother last wishes, but his twin sister Jeanne decides to find her biological father and brother.
The major twist of the plot however lies in a very horrifying realization which the director so subtly (and cleverly) puts into a single line of dialogue. The scene though lasting only almost a minute, can be split into three different moods, each transition making us emote at the same instance as the characters change perceptions. Curiosity. Puzzlement. Horror. Such is the level of emotional bond that Denis manages to create between his audience and his twin-protagonists, to prepare us for the ultimate mental catastrophe so we could all feel exactly what Jeanne and Simon feel when the time comes. There, according to me lies the director's masterstroke, and a very powerful one too.
Lubna Azabal who plays the mother is slowly growing into the same mould as Hiam Abbass, one of the most prolific talents that Israel has ever produced, though the two hail from different origins and ethnicities; Lubna from a predominantly french background and Abbass, from the Arab world. Lubna along with Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin carry the burden of the intricate plot with convincing ease.

The locales and sceneries though beautiful to look at, remain intentionally unspecific. You just know that the story is set somewhere in the middle-east and Canada. The generic sense in which the politics behind the scenario is dealt with and the way in which it makes you think on a lower level of individuality rather than "the big picture" speaks a lot about the plot's intentions. When people suffer quietly under tyrants who rule over them, the only thing they care about is their own families. What happens around them or to the government or to the whole world for that matter is of no consequence to them whatsoever. There are many symbols and silent unsaid commentaries like these in the movie, but the narrative also speaks volumes in many ways. The reflection is real and relevant. How can we live and leave a better future for our children? How can we brake the destructive and devastating cycle of war and hate?
Incendies could have been a better film if it allowed itself to breathe and curbed some of its drawn-out and less necessary sequences. Perhaps it could have taken a moment to smile, yea, even in the world of near-biblical suffering. Ultimately the source play shakes you up while lecturing you and the film does the same. One is fascinated by the plot twists and can see their poetic justice without consenting to believe them all. Some of the truths of war and sectarianism might ring truer if not all so neatly tied into the detective-story search for family origins. I think often in this kind of context of Claire Denis's The Intruder and Arnaud des Pallières 2003 Adieu, multi-level films about family and wrongdoing whose failures to connect all the dots make them richer and more memorable and perhaps more truly cinematic. Perhaps only a disturbing and never-explained opening sequence in Incendies of boys having their head shaved to the tune of Radiohead's "You and Whose Army" has that quality of boldly evoking inexplicable but dangerously real worlds.
As if the movie was not enough, we are also privy to Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette's stunning making-of documentary, Se souvenir des cendres - Regards sur Incendies http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1756720/ which takes a life of its own with revealing interviews, crisp cinematography, eloquent editing, poetic vision and spellbinding storytelling. It is easily the best making-of documentary I have ever seen.
Go watch this movie if you ever need a retrospection into the deep dark corners of your mind, and get astounded by the power of art-house cinema. Sell your weapon if you have to and watch it.

To make a case in point, I somehow felt the mother of the twins should've taken the secret of their past to her grave, and let them continue with their peaceful lives. Letting the sleeping dog lie somehow might be the best way to deal with your life; never look back; let bygone be bygone; never believe that the truth will set you free, because sometimes, the truth will kill you. What's happened in your past is still your past whatsoever, whether you uncover it or not.