Tag Archives: Michael Fassbender

Shame (2011)

One of the most talked-about films at the NYFF this year was Steve McQueen’s Shame.  Portraying the daily life of a sex addict, its subject matter is attention-grabbing enough, but the film’s beautiful construction and Michael Fassbender’s incredible performance make it one of the most remarkable films of the year.

Shame begins with an overhead shot of Brandon (Mr. Fassbender) lying naked on his bed, staring off into space with a blank expression.  Entwined with ice blue sheets, his body is the center of our gaze, and McQueen holds on this shot for a while.  With no music to distract us, we quietly study Brandon’s body, the body that is so central to the film and over which he has no control.  Long, still shots like these are key to the film.  They force us to unflinchingly face the ugliness in Brandon and the painful nature of his addiction, while placing us firmly in the position of voyeurs.

A number of film-goers I spoke to complained that the film made the same point too many times; there were too many scenes of Brandon having raunchy, degrading sex, too much nudity, etc.  This repetition is actually McQueen’s way of removing the titillation from such images.  The early sex scenes affect us in the usual way, but the more of them we see, the less erotic they become.  By the end, when Brandon is engaging in a sexual encounter most men would revel in, it is simply painful to watch.  Every encounter he has seems to break him down more and more, bringing him only pain instead of pleasure.

Mr. Fassbender is truly a wonder to behold in this film.  His performance is simply mind-blowing.  The myriad of emotions that cross his face within seconds conveys the intense confusion in Brandon and his utter inability to treat himself and others well.  In some scenes, Brandon is the calm at the center of a storm of people, watching the women around him with still blue eyes.  In others, he seems about to jump out of his skin, leg bouncing, head bent down, muscles tensed until they look about to burst.  Mr. Fassbender portrays the many sides of Brandon perfectly, with the kind of commitment that comes from a truly trusting actor-director relationship.

The other main storyline in the film, aside from Brandon’s attempts to control his addiction, is his relationship with his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan).  An artsy young woman with depressive tendencies, Sissy comes barreling into Brandon’s life and takes over his apartment.  She disturbs his routine and makes him feel emotions he doesn’t want to admit to, particularly in the slowest rendition of “New York, New York” ever performed.  As irritating as her character can be, Ms. Mulligan holds her own against Mr. Fassbender, and their scenes together are revealing on both sides.  Her presence allows us to see yet another side of Brandon and gives us a glimpse into where he comes from.

Shame is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, with compositions that quietly convey a sense of alienation in long, static shots.  The beauty of its construction makes its subject matter all the more visceral, forcing us to experience the desensitization that Brandon feels as we see image after image of the naked human body.  Between Mr. McQueen’s masterful direction and Mr. Fassbender’s amazing performance, this is one of the most important films of the year, and I hope this pair continues to work together for years to come.

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A Dangerous Method (2011)

When director David Cronenberg introduced A Dangerous Method at the NYFF tonight (accompanied by the wonderful Michael Fassbender), he implied that the film is very different from his earlier work.  It is true that this most recent effort does not contain mutant babies or twin gynecologists, and it lacks the visual flair of his usual films.  It is, however, clearly a Cronenberg film as far as subject matter goes.  Its exploration of the darker side of human nature and the visceral urges we attempt to repress fits in perfectly with his previous work.

The film follows Dr. Carl Jung (Mr. Fassbender) and his relationships with a masochistic patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) and the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen).  The small cast is uniformly excellent.  I have always been anti-Keira Knightley, but her performance here is surprisingly good.  Her reed-like, fragile physique and wide eyes make her the perfect image of a broken, battered child who, over the course of the film, gradually composes herself but refuses to soften.  The character is all hard edges, demanding and incisive in her ability to read human behavior.  Despite the fact that she is the masochist, you get the sense that she is the one who holds the power over Jung, not vice versa.

Jung’s relationship with Freud is similarly fraught.  Beginning as a mentoring relationship, it eventually turns into a battle for the future of psychoanalysis.  No matter what the viewer may think about Freud and Jung’s theories (I have my problems with them, of course), their discussions over the course of the film are gripping and genuinely thought-provoking.  A Dangerous Method is, appropriately, a very talky film, but the content and performances kept me interested.  Mr. Fassbender employs his subtle, visceral style to make Jung the slowly-crumbling center of the film.  He is on camera almost the entire time, making every small change in his facial expressions and body posture count.  Viggo Mortensen, an old favorite of mine who has been doing excellent work with Cronenberg over the last decade, brings a dry wit and quiet consideration to Freud.  The character could have so easily become cartoonish, with his perpetual cigar and prosthetic nose, but Mortensen makes him an intriguing and humble intellectual presence.

Alongside the more obvious discussion of human sexuality and psychology, the film also tackles issues of class and religion.  Spielrein and Freud are both Jews, while Jung is Protestant.  Freud is from a lower class and lives in a cramped apartment with his six children, while Jung’s wife is incredibly wealthy and he lives in a country house with his own sailboat.  These differences create a quiet tension that suffuses the characters’ interactions and lends an extra edge to Jung and Freud’s disagreements.  The implications of these differences become very clear in the end titles, which I will not spoil for you.  Suffice it to say, World War II played its part in these characters’ lives.

A Dangerous Method is thought-provoking and well-executed, if mainstream for a man of Cronenberg’s eccentricity.  The dialed-down style makes for a visually bland experience, but in a way it is appropriate for the subject matter.  Just like in Jung himself, all the darker elements lie beneath the surface.

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Jane Eyre (2011)

On the plane back from Copenhagen I was finally able to watch the most recent Jane Eyre adaptation, which I was unable to see in theaters due to its frustratingly limited release.  Before I share my thoughts, a quick disclaimer: I have read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre upwards of ten times.  As a result, my review will largely address issues of adaptation.

Of the three adaptations I have seen, this one is definitively superior.   The 1996 Zefirelli version was generally cold and suffered from a woefully miscast William Hurt as Rochester.  Charlotte Gainsbourg though an excellent actress, was slightly anemic in her portrayal of Jane and didn’t convey the necessary spirit.  Then there is Robert Stevenson’s 1943 version, starring Orson Welles and the far-too-pretty Joan Fontaine.  In an attempt to keep the film to 90 minutes, that version is over-abridged and paints the characters in broad strokes, making Jane a whimpering victim and Rochester a looming shadow creature.  Here’s the poster to give you a sense of it:

Suffice it to say I have been generally unsatisfied with adaptations of this book so near to my heart.  Cary Fukunaga’s version, with an excellent screenplay by Moira Buffini, made it all better.  The casting is simply brilliant – both Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender are perfect in their roles.  Ms. Wasikowska, whom I loved in Alice in Wonderland – creates a Jane who is strong, fiery and self-righteous, but also contained and reserved.  One of the major problems with film adaptations of the novel is that Jane is an incredibly complex character, making it almost impossible to effectively convey all her levels onscreen.  Ms. Wasikowska does it.  The way she carries herself onscreen gives a sense of her quiet composure and her self-imposed reserve, letting us know that, though she is quiet, she is anything but meek.  When Rochester asks her to marry him, she erupts, and the fury and self-righteous indignation coming off of her body and face is palpable.  Wasikowska is a force of nature in this film, giving an incredibly moving performance without being the least bit showy.

Mr. Fassbender’s performance is also pitch-perfect.  Although he is a bit too handsome for the role, he makes up for it with his raw, emotional portrayal of a complicated character.  His Rochester is magnetic and yearning, allowing slight changes of facial expression to convey his reactions to Jane and her stubborn independence.  With his lean physique and chiseled jaw, he has the look of a starving wolf, desperate for the nourishment of Jane’s indomitable spirit.  The chemistry these two have shows that it is indeed possible to make a film with no sex more erotic than most R-rated fare.

The two leads are perfect, and the ensemble around them is equally excellent.  Judi Dench brings gravitas to Mrs. Fairfax, a character generally portrayed as good-hearted but simple.  Here, there is much more to her, and I love that it allows her to have more of a knowing sympathy with Jane.  One lovely scene, in which Ms. Buffini’s screenplay allows the book’s feminist leanings to show themselves explicitly, takes place between Mrs. Fairfax and Jane.  Our heroine looks longingly out at the horizon and says, “I wish a woman could have action in her life, like a man…If I could behold all I imagine….”  The look on Dame Dench’s face in response makes it clear that she, too, has felt this longing, but she has sadly accepted her lot in this culture and time.  With this brief scene, Mrs. Fairfax is made a three-dimensional character, actually surpassing her portrayal in the novel.  Jamie Bell is also very good as the stern St. John Rivers, making the character both likeable and suitably off-putting.

My one major problem with this film is the handling of the childhood section.  Very little time is devoted to Jane’s childhood here, and the scenes that are included feel rushed and haphazardly put together.  The girl who plays her is irritating and ill-cast, though it’s hard to top young Anna Paquin in the 1996 version.  Jane’s friendship with Helen Burns is dispatched with in two short scenes, failing to convey the effect it has on Jane and her fierce sense of loyalty.  I almost wish they had left out the Lowood sequence altogether if they weren’t going to do it justice, as it just made the film feel choppy for the first twenty minutes.

Aside from the poorly put together childhood sequence, however, the film is simply beautiful.  Mr. Fukunaga’s filming conveys the harshness of the Northern England landscape and the isolation of Thornfield and its inhabitants.  He uses a great deal of handheld shots as well, giving the film more urgency and a the viewer a sense of proximity to the characters and their emotions.  Particular visual attention is paid to Jane’s sexual awakening, evident in the editing choices in particular.  After her second fireside conversation with Rochester, we see Jane looking at a sensual painting of a female nude in the hallway, contemplating it by candlelight.  Later, after she puts out the fire in his bedchamber, she returns to her room and starts to untie her robe as an enigmatic expression crosses her face.  With these visual cues, the filmmakers are able to convey Jane’s growing sexuality and attraction to Rochester without being anachronistically explicit.

In the end, my favorite thing about this film is that it allows the story to be unquestionably about Jane.  It sounds like a silly thing to say, but there are many ways to make the story of Jane Eyre less about Jane herself.  In this film, everything is from her point of view.  Ms. Buffini’s screenplay takes the majority of its dialogue directly from the novel.  To hear Ms. Wasikowska and Mr. Fassbender speak Bronte’s words gives us the perfect sense of how Rochester sees Jane but, more importantly, how she sees herself.  The last line of the film sums her up perfectly.  Rochester protests that he is dreaming and she simply says, “Awaken, then…”

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