Telluride 2011: Sex and Psychoanalysis in 'Shame' and 'A Dangerous Method'
Breakout star of 2011 Michael Fassbender explores our primal pain in two of the fall's most intriguing films.
Well, this is Michael Fassbender’s year. First the mainstream punch of X-Men: First Class, then Shame and A Dangerous Method, which both played the Venice and Telluride film festivals this weekend. (He also played Rochester in Jane Eyre in March.) I saw Shame and Method one after the other Sunday at Telluride, and even more striking than the skillful range of Fassbender’s performances was the confluence of ideas explored in them.
In Shame, Fassbender goes to the darkest of edges (and barest of bodies) in his portrayal of a sex addict struggling with the shame that drives his self-destructive behavior. In Method, he plays Carl Jung as a young man who develops his early theories of psychoanalysis by taking on a female patient tortured as an adult by the young childhood connection she made between humiliation and sexuality. As a filmgoer, the experience was a one-two punch of forceful acting and thoughtful provocation.
Director Steve McQueen introduced Shame via a sober pre-recorded video, describing the work as "indicative of how we communicate and discommunicate” in the 21st century. After watching it, I started referring to it in my head as There Will Be Come, so relentless was its focus on one tortured soul struggling with his worst impulses (in the case of Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant film, There Will Be Blood, that would be misanthropy tilting into psychosis.)
The film was as anticipated as any at Telluride. Acquisitions and marketing execs from Roadside Attractions, The Weinstein Co. and Sony Pictures Classics were all at the debut screening at the Palm Sunday afternoon, along with filmmakers Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Joseph Cedar and a packed house of eager cinephiles.
Even if they didn’t know anything about the film beforehand, audiences got the idea pretty quickly, as Fassbender walks around his apartment fully naked a few times, has sex with a hooker, watches porn on his laptop, and masturbates both in the shower and at the office within the first ten minutes. Only then do we get multiple scenes of graphic sex. The only light and color in Brandon’s life are the clubs, restaurants and bars where he prowls for prey – his office and home are just cold, glass-and-steel cages through which he walks like a zombie carrying his burden like a shroud.
Carey Mulligan plays Brandon’s sister, Sissy, who is a whole different piece of work. Her intrusion into his life represents more than just an invasion of his privacy and private shame. She brings an unspoken reminder of traumas from their past that, while never made explicit, points to the origin of each of their self-destructive obsessions. (It’s a performance by Mulligan that will banish any thought that she can only play cute and strong.)
The movie’s deficits are twofold. One, we rarely ever see Brandon do or say anything nice beyond trying to bed someone, nor does he make any real effort to stop, while at the same time regular women throw themselves at him non-stop, on subways, in bars, at work. This is a movie where a pretty co-worker will ask, “Hey, you like your sugar?” as he makes a cup of coffee, and it’s like the sentence itself has them humping.
But more damningly, we are never given anything more than a hint at the Why. Clearly, McQueen and his co-writer Abi Morgan designed it this way. We are meant only to see the Is of his torment. But unlike alcoholism and drug addiction, which have been portrayed countless times by now and have seeped into the public consciousness to the extent that even those without direct connection to them have some understanding, sex addiction is still a widespread taboo. A broader look at what underlies Brandon’s behavior would have given moviegoers something more concrete to relate to.
Viewers came out of the screening pummeled by the expressionistic and somber film. It’s brilliantly acted and directed, and several of the long, uncomfortable scenes – one an attempt by Brandon to have a “real date” and another to engage in true intimacy – are wonderfully real and, thus, excruciating. And a late moment where the camera stares at Fassbender’s face as his expression turns from desperate lust to existential anguish is worth an acting award on its own. But the experience as a whole is so hermetically sealed it’s like watching a pretty but damaged sex worker perform just on the other side of the glass.
“I’m vile and filthy and corrupt,” is how Keira Knightley’s hysterical Russian patient Sabina Spielrein describes herself in Method when she first comes under Jung’s care. Brandon from Shame would certainly recognize the self-assessment. But now we’re watching Fassbender play the opposite of Brandon’s blind recklessness – Jung is highly analytical and very open about his torn conscience as he battles personally and intellectually with his own desires and ego.
He ultimately helps Sabina to learn to accept her own masochistic urges so she can become a successful and functional student, and then surprisingly insightful doctor herself. Meanwhile, he becomes more perplexed by the competing philosophies that inspire him—that of his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and the amoral therapist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), who subscribes to the mantra, “never repress anything.”
“Pleasure is never simple,” says Fassbender in response. Watch these two great films to see just how complicated it can be.