Sunday, October 23, 2011

New York Film Festival 2011: Wrap

The Siren is late with this New York Film Festival wrap-up, but she felt like she owed it to Carey Mulligan, if no one else.

Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)
Once upon a time the Siren took acting classes, and one day we embarked on a story-telling exercise. The idea was for the actor to take the stage and describe an incident from his life. His classmates would then tell him which parts they didn’t believe. First up was an earnest young woman from New Jersey--we’ll call her Angie. The Siren has forgotten most particulars of Angie’s story, but it began with a great deal of Boone’s Farm wine, which Angie said she consumed because she was young and foolish and “I thought you had to be drunk to have a good time.” The story ran through some mildly embarrassing hijinks. When Angie finished, there was a short silence.

Then, loud and clear from the back of the room came the voice of a guy from Tennessee: “We-ell, first of all, I don’t believe that you don’t have to be drunk to have a good time.”

And therein we have the Siren’s obstacle with Shame. She doesn’t believe having tons of sex is this big a drag. Porn--OK, maybe, when it reaches the point where it's your whole sex life. The Siren has known people who preferred porn to a partner. They became too put off by the fact that doing it with someone else involves mess and noise and exertion and flawed bodies--not to mention pre- and post-coital conversational formalities. Rich, handsome, single Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is addicted to porn, all right, but that sure doesn’t mean he won't go out and get laid with obsessive, addictive and utterly joyless regularity.

Director Steve McQueen must know many people have the Siren’s attitude, and he responds by daring the audience to find anything in his movie erotic, up to and including his lead actor’s traffic-stopping beauty. Much of the sex and nudity is shot from pitiless angles with the kind of office-building lighting that makes even the dewiest interns look like they have a case of stomach flu. The strategy reaches its nadir with a threesome, as the lugubrious score (the movie’s worst flaw) keeps sawing away to emphasize, "This is sad, this is dreary, so whatever you do, DON'T GET TURNED ON."

What saves the film from risibility is that sex-addiction isn’t its primary theme. Rather than perversion (actually, you don’t even get to see anything that qualifies as perverted, so if that's the selling point for you, consider this the Siren’s Consumer Report)--as the Siren was saying, rather than perversion, Shame is about near-fatally damaged people. Brandon is unable to connect with a single human being in one of the world’s most crowded cities. His trauma is obvious, but never specified--a good choice, since it would take a lot to explain a man this shattered. The two best scenes in the movie, consequently, have no sex at all. Both are shot in bravura long takes that enable the actors to show a huge range of reactions to one another. The first is Brandon’s attempt at a real date with a pretty coworker. The scene becomes a death-spiral of awkwardness, Fassbender showing that his character has only a vague notion of how to socialize when neither fucking nor the immediate possibility of fucking is involved.

The second is an extended fight, shot from the back of Brandon’s couch, between him and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). She’s moved into his Dwell-ready apartment because her own life is also a mess. Now, you may recall that the Siren did not cotton to Mulligan in Drive. Well, here she was marvelous. She’s a perfect take on a certain kind of rootless urban girl, self-sabotaging her own desultory pursuit of a career and throwing herself at men who transparently don’t give a damn. There's a suggestion of incestuous attraction, but whatever Brandon's desires may be, at this point he does have one boundary, and Sissy is it. The feeling he has for her is as close to ordinary affection as he gets, and it’s painful to watch him provoking her into a fight, because it’s obvious why he’s doing it: She’s preventing him from pursuing his addiction.

The Siren can’t call Shame wholly successful, no way. But it has some extraordinarily accomplished acting, it's heartfelt and sometimes moving. Uneven efforts like this one can be more interesting to watch and discuss than many more coldly efficient products.

The Kid With the Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2011)
The Siren got one lovely moment out of the NYFF press conferences, when the Dardenne brothers came onstage to discuss The Kid With the Bike, the story of a friendless boy and his frantic search for belonging. Someone asked about the use of music, and one brother said they hadn’t used any before. The Kid, however, uses a short passage from the Emperor Concerto at several points, as when the title character Cyril (Thomas Doret) is falling miserably asleep. They thought of the music, said M. Dardenne, as a caress: “It’s what Cyril is missing in his life, which is love.” In that declaration is all the power of this movie. Doret has a pugnacious face that could be easily cast as the cafeteria bully, and the character is a volcanically difficult little brat, stubborn and defiant, constantly on the move, usually in the direction of trouble. But from the first moments the Dardennes show why this unlovable child desperately needs love, as he tries to contact his indifferent father, and later is deceived by a charismatic young criminal. In the world the Dardennes create, so urgent and universal is the hunger for affection that when Cyril locks his arms around a stranger, merely to prevent his minders from taking him away, it has the power to involve the stranger in the boy’s life forever. Deeply emotional, and a beautiful film.


Here the Siren offers her ranking of the 15 films she saw at NYFF 2011. The top three get her very strongest endorsement; the next four are highly recommended; the next five are worthwhile, with reservations. The Siren endorses the bottom three only for those with a passion for the directors or for Marilyn Monroe.

A Separation
Le Havre
This Is Not a Film
The Kid With a Bike
You Are Not I
Miss Bala
Woman With Red Hair
The Loneliest Planet
A Dangerous Method
The Turin Horse
My Week With Marilyn
We Can’t Go Home Again


Peter Nellhaus said...

Considering that the Starz Denver Film Festival usually has strong presentations of Iranian and Mexican films, A Separation, This is Not a Film, and Miss Bala are not coming my way this November. Several of the other films are guaranteed commercial release so I'm not worried about seeing them eventually. Enjoyed your postings. I'll be posting on Denver's festival starting November 2, but I don't think the world needs needs more coverage of the usual suspects. I will press on without Shame or Melancholia.

The Siren said...

I'm always interested in your take, Peter, and in fact I'd be particularly interested in hearing from you about Shame, which is getting a huge range of reactions. I'm glad you liked my festival coverage. I decided it would be an interesting exercise in a type of writing I haven't done much. In order to do it, I had to ignore the fact that the films were going to get written up by everyone and their twin sister Edith and trust that there might a be at least a sentence or an idea somewhere that people weren't going to hear elsewhere. I really hope A Separation comes to Denver at some point. If the NYFF had a competition, my unscientific impression is that A Separation would have won in a walk.

Yojimboen said...

First: who told you about my twin sister Edith? (And how the hell did she get out of the attic again?)

Second: As you wrap up your NYFF comments I’m starting to catch up with your earlier reviewed films, notably the Cronenberg, A Dangerous Method with the fabulously fetching Mr. Fassbender.

(Against Viggo M, I’ll hear not a goddamn word – he gets better and better every time I see him – I am constantly staggered by his skill; his working partnership with Cronenberg is for me one of the most consistently rewarding joys in world cinema.)

The WGA screening provided an interesting rejoinder to your assessment of the agonizingly angular Ms Knightly’s performance; in a full theater I waited for some embarrassed or nervous giggles at her simulated spasticity; but surprisingly, giggles came there none. The audience of pros seemed entirely predisposed to take her ferocious face-pulling at, well, face value, any impulse to laugh balanced by an admiration for the actress’s… ‘bravery’ is the wrong word, but you know what I mean. In truth, I’m not a great fan of Ms Knightly’s and went to the screening perfectly prepared to dislike her; but wound up more than willing to award ‘a’ for effort.

The film is exquisitely wrought, the original turn-of-the-century locations look bandbox new, and the art direction is – that overused word, but true here – flawless.

One carp, the costumes - by Mrs Cronenberg – though as near-as-a-dammit perfect for the most part, disappoint in the hat dept. At a time in fashion history when women expressed their individuality by many and marvelous chapeaux (1912 example), Mrs. Croneberg’s choices seem oddly subdued… Unless… unless…

Here I must insert a Spoiler Alert:

Unless they intentionally led up to the final choice for Ms Knightly’s character – a white number almost identical to the stepped-pyramid trademark headgear worn by 70s icon band Devo, which was intended as a subtle reference to the character’s preferred foreplay: “Whip It Good!”?
I’m just sayin’…

The Siren said...

Y., all I can do with the reviews and reaction to Knightley is to quote a good friend: "She gets SUCH A PASS." She's one of those actresses who seems to go through life being graded on one hell of a curve, and I know not why. She's up to it in her last three scenes and nowhere else, in my opinion.

That said, Mortenson is worth double the ticket price and then some. If Knightley gets an Oscar nom and he doesn't I shall...I shall...write a strongly worded letter to the Times. ;)

Unknown said...

At the risk of sounding like the ninety-millionth psychiatrist with a degree from the Internet Medical School, sex addiction IS a real thing. I had had my doubts, thinking as you do that having a lot of sex and complaining about it was disingenuous. But a friend of mine is currently in therapy for it and watching the way he suffers and struggles with it made me see it is a real problem. Now, I haven't seen SHAME yet and don't know how well McQueen, Fassbender et al pulled it off, but it would seem from your review and others that Fassbender's character engages in sex out of compulsion rather than the pursuit of pleasure, which would qualify as addiction.

Anyway, apologies if that was excessively high-handed. I'm just sayin', as the saying goes.

The Siren said...

Danny, you don't sound the least high-handed, you sound the soul of politeness--and compassion for your pal, too. I didn't mean to sound *quite* so skeptical about the existence of sex addiction; it's more that it's so beyond my comprehension that it's a hard sell, even though McQueen and Fassbender definitely establish that there is zero joy in Brandon's compulsion. The movie is very akin to such scraping-bottom sagas as Leaving Las Vegas or The Lost Weekend. I'm not one of the people who's bothered by the fact that Brandon is rich and gorgeous; that's integral to the plot and when he picks up women with the kind of ease most men can barely dream of, it's not only believable, it's what you'd EXPECT. I just think that, as with other addiction sagas, refusing to acknowledge that there is anything fun about what the person is addicted to can backfire. And with sex, being hell-bent about showing you how awful it is really does backfire at times, because hey, we can all live without booze, KWIM?

That's what I mean by mixed feelings, and by the movie's being heartfelt, and interesting as all hell, even if some choices work better than others for me. It's also why it took me so dang long to write this, and it still isn't adequate.

DavidEhrenstein said...

What? You didn't get to see Vito ?

The Siren said...

NO! ain't that a kick in the teeth? I was too sick to go that day. I missed the whole last week of NYFF because of work/illness.

DavidEhrenstein said...


Well keep an eye peeled for more screenigns before it head to HBO

Anonymous said...

Very happy to read your comments, but I think I liked "Shame" more than you did, Siren. (Although, obviously, we both adored the long takes, which we'd first famously seen in McQueen's "Hunger.")

To me, the central conceit of the film was that the Fassbender character thought that sex was something that animals did -- and that he was an animal. This is what beasts do. I am nothing but a beast. Therefore let me rut and root and snort some more.

So, personally, I didn't read it so much as being about addiction (that ugly dance in which what once brought you pleasure, now only brings you a relief from pain). I saw it as an awful masochistic spiral, in which every orgasm was merely another lash of the whip.

But, REALLY. You're writing about this after Gasper Noe? I prescribe a double dose of Lubitsch now.

gmoke said...

If you want to see a film with hats, try Bright Star from a few years ago. There is some beautiful work there with clothes and millinery, partly because young Fanny Brawne is made out to be something of a designer with a discerning talent, one of the reasons she catches and holds Mr Keats' attention.

Yojimboen said...

@ gsmoke - For that very reason - among others - I named Bright Star as far and away my favourite film of 2009.

The Siren said...

Still need to see Bright Star.

Swhitty, not only did I watch Irreversible, earlier in the week it was Nathaniel West's birthday and somebody on my FB posted the climactic riot from Day of the Locust and I'm all "wow, haven't seen that movie in yonks" and I watched that too. I am thinking what I need now is a steady diet of Mitzi Gaynor movies. Les Girls, anyone?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Les Girls definitely.

Also Breakfast On Pluto (for reasosn that you will discover on seeign this marvelous film.)

DavidEhrenstein said...

And that's not to mention --

DavidEhrenstein said...

As For The Day of The Locust --