My mother almost constantly, incessantly voices her dissatisfaction with the state of security in the world. In a world where everyone has a cell phone to track them, there are security cameras on nearly every corner, we are all being watched. Being the young Millennial I am, I shrug it off with apathy, ignoring what I perceive to be over paranoia. But, it’s safe (or unsafe) to say that Big Brother is watching. And what if Big Brother decided to, for one reason or another, send you what he’s seen, as mundane or as revealing as it might be? What if Big Brother were standing just across the street, preying on your life and then taunting you and mocking you in the same breath? Michael Haneke’s slow burning Caché does just that.
Subversion is the best when you do not notice it. Whether it’s Lars von Trier’s criticisms of the United States in Dogville or Steve McQueen putting up who is now the poster boy for fictional sexual addiction on display, subversion is best when the audience is wrapped up in the story and only after realizes that they’ve been undermined as an audience and forced to face the proverbial light of day. Austrian auteur Michael Haneke likes to subvert. Even if you are only distantly familiar with his films, you can tell that he enjoys the socio-political aspect to subverting contemporary audiences expectations from the films they watch. Lars von Trier does it with glee, but Haneke seems far more serious about his agenda. His film Funny Games, which he remade shot for shot for an American audience in 2007, was an exercise in sadism. Shoving the carnage horror audiences love to watch with a terrifying realism in front of our faces was not exactly the most pleasant experience, and nor should it have been. However, the film was so blatant about its agenda, leaving nothing to the imagination and little to read into, it came off as rather pretentious. It seemed less of an examination of why we like these things than just torturing for the fact that we do (Sorry, The Cabin in the Woods did it better). However, later in his career, Haneke, who enjoys experimentation with narrative techniques, decides that sadism doesn’t always have to have the negative connotation. Sometimes, sadism might be a good thing.
A fairly wealthy family is being watched. Videos are being sent to them, and on the tapes is surveillance footage filmed from across the street. They’re coming with violent pictures, almost as if drawn by a child. They don’t know who or why these tapes are being sent to them, never mind why they’re being sent in the first place. But the notion of being watched causes the family’s sense of security to disintegrate. Their lives turn to quiet bedlam.
The film is graced by stellar performances from Daniel Auteuil, as Georges the patriarch and co-host of a popular literary television show, and Juliette Binoche, as Anne a publisher. The two have an interesting dynamic as the film begins. They seem to have a pleasant, trusting relationship when the film begins, or at least what counts for a normal relationship. But even as they receive the first tape, their relationship is tested. Georges begins to think from the logical aspect, and you can almost see his mind buzzing with various theories as to who the mysterious filmmaker could be, where the tape could have been filmed, etc. Anne is less caught up in the very specific details of logistics, and looks at it emotionally, worrying about the state of her family. As the film continues, their relationship continues to strain and be tested, almost as if the two mindsets and ways of thinking must go against one another head to head, both as a way of maintaining an intimate relationship and as a way of problem solving. Binoche does not do “quiet desperation” is a stupid, trite way, nor has she ever. Her desperation has always been evident in her eyes and in her face, and she never second guesses her performance or the audience by pushing it over the edge into a state of fantasy, rather than reality. I am not familiar with Auteuil or his work, but his various acts of honesty, duplicity, and paranoia resonate as true within the film. He is the typical male who has seemingly lost control of his normal life with this new “thing”. The man who has lost control rebounds against bad decisions and pays the price, slowly losing the dignity he is so desperate to keep.
The film’s cinematography is its most important element. Largely composed of static shots, Haneke has fun presenting both the reality of the Laurents family and the surveillance footage, often within the same scene, even in the same shot. Discerning between surveillance and reality is part of the most intriguing elements of the film, if not the most fascinating part. When the camera is not making more obvious pans and movements, one can safely assume it’s surveillance footage… or is it? The point, it seems, between the inability to really tell from shot to shot of what kind of footage is being shown is to accentuate one of the main theses of the films: we are always being watched. I do not think that Haneke is intentionally being overly paranoid about the subject, but instead being realistic about the world that we live in. It has stunning relevance viewing it almost a decade after its initial release, with the changes in technology. Regardless of whether it’s Big Brother watching or your neighbor, the fact that we live in society where some feel the need to be cautious about everything versus those who live by “YOLO” and carry themselves anywhere and anyway they like. It seems to be more about facing the reality of the world we live in than some sort of propaganda scaring the audience into paranoia. My theory, though, is that the entire film is surveillance. Though there are one or two tracking shot, the stillness of the frames, and the lack of pans could lead one to assume that Haneke’s Caché is an Orwellian masterpiece whose dystopian horror of constant surveillance takes place within reality. (At moments, it seems that even characters that wouldn’t seem to “matter” may be in on it; there’s a blah white man in one scene in a restaurant who looks into the camera.)
Maybe an important aspect of the film is that because the narrative force is looking through the eyes of a voyeur, the audience in turn becomes that violator just as much as whoever is responsible for the threats and the tapes. Much like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, we become the perpetrators by staring closely at each frame and yet convincing ourselves that we haven’t looked into these peoples’ lives close enough. Is this Haneke once again showing us the state of what entertainment has become?
Michael Haneke’s subversion of the deliberate pace and the eye of the camera does not fully wash over you until well after the film is over. It becomes a haunting vision that lives with you and makes you consider every step you take. It should be no surprise that, after September 11 and the subsequent Patriot Act, there would be a certain amount of “precaution” taken, but the Austrian director shows us what can really happen and how one thing can then disrupt the entire life of a family. Caché is a film that is realized meticulously, where you pay vigilant attention to every scene, looking around the frame and studying the mise-en-scene for every moment of the film, only trying to understand more. Made, somewhat ironically, twenty years after George Orwell’s dystopian 1984 is supposed to take place, Haneke presents it as Big Brother realized, threatening and fearful. And when the film is over, and the shock of violence, even violation of the senses has been slowly washed out of your mind, you will ask yourself, “Was I watching closely?”
111. Tokyo Drifter (1966) | Directed by Seijun Suzuki – B+
112. Branded to Kill (1967) | Directed by Seijun Suzuk – B
113. Alien3: Work Print Cut (1992) | Directed by David Fincher – B+
114. Tiny Furniture (2008) | Directed by Lena Dunham – B-
115. Alien3: Theatrical Cut (1992) | Directed by David Fincher – C
116. Alien: Resurrection (1997) | Directed by Jean-Pierre jeunet – C+
118. The Seventh Seal (1957) | Directed by Ingmar Bergman – A
119. Cinema Verite (2011) | Directed by Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini – C
121. America Graffiti (1973) | Directed by George Lucas – A
122. Fatal Attraction (1987) | Directed by Adrian Lyne – A-
123. Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) | Directed by Charles Reisner – A-
124. The Last Metro (1980) Directed by François Truffaut – A
125. Spy Kids (2001) | Directed by Robert Rodriguez – B
126. Help! (1965) | Directed by Richard Lester – D+
127. Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) | Directed by Ingmar Bergman – A-
128. The Terminator (1984) | Directed by James Cameron – B
129. Our Hospitality (1923) | Directed by John G. Blystone and Buster Keaton – A-
130. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) | Directed by Robert Wiene – A
131. Secret Sunshine (2007) | Directed by Lee Chang-dong – A
132. Mary and Max (2007) | Directed by Adam Eliot – B
133. Submarine (2010) | Directed by Richard Ayoade – B+
134. I Am Legend (2007) | Directed by Francis Lawrence – B
135. Mouse Hunt (1997) | Directed by Gore Verbinski – B+
137. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962) | Directed Robert Enrico – B
138. Citizen Kane (1941) | Directed by Orson Welles – A
139. The People vs. George Lucas (2010) | Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe – B
140. Outrage (2009) | Directed by Kirby Dick – B
141. The Lady Eve (1941) | Directed by Preston Sturgess – B+
143. Dancer in the Dark (2000) | Directed by Lars con Trier – A+
144. Jules and Jim (1962) | Directed by François Truffaut – B+
145. The Exterminating Angel (1962) | Directed by Luis Buñuel – B+
146. Friends with Benefits (2011) | Directed by Will Gluck – C+
148. FreeDogme (2000) | Directed by Roger Narbonne – B
149. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) | Directed by Joe Johnston – C
150. Blue Valentine (2010) | Directed by Derek Cianfrance – A
151. The Element of Crime (1984) | Directed by Lars von Trier – A-
152. Tranceformer: A Potrait of Lars von Trier (1997) | Directed by Stig Bjorkman – B+
153. Epidemic (1987) | Directed by Lars von Trier – D
154. Europa (1991) | Directed by Lars von Trier – A-
155. Do the Right Thing (1989) | Directed by Spike Lee – B
156. Heavenly Creatures (1994) | Directed by Peter Jackson – A-
157. Delicatessen (1991) | Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet – A-
158. An Andalusian Dog (1929) | Directed by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí – B+
159. Zéro de Conduite (1933) | Directed by Jean Vigo – B+
160. The Navigator (1924) | Directed by Donald Crisp and Buster Keaton – A
Different kinds of addiction have been portrayed numerous times on screen, from heroine to cocaine, from meth to even the addiction to one’s ego. But artist turned director Steve McQueen’s Shame marks the first time that sex addiction has been handled on so hauntingly and superbly on the screen. Michael Fassbender’s sympathetic Brandon is more the ghost of a human, just as the film is more a ghost of an actual story, rather than something as fulfilling as it wishes to be.
Artist turned director Steve McQueen made his first mark on art cinema with 2008’s Hunger, a semi-biopic starring Michael Fassbender depicting Billy Sands, the IRA, and the ensuing hunger strike that Sands would put himself to. The film was an equally cold exploration of the damage and harm that, in a masochistic sense, a person could subject themselves to and how that affected the people around them. Shame follows the same kind of thematic link, with Fassbender’s Brandon a man whose sexual appetites cannot be satisfied. Both are unflinching looks at the subject matter at hand. But McQueen’s precise directing and unsympathetic look at the character separate and distance the audience form making a true emotional connection with Brandon. Not because his problem is one that few audience member will identify with, but because McQueen, by himself, gives the audience little reason to sympathize with him in the first place.
It is no doubt, however, that it is Michael Fassbender who makes Brandon as sympathetic as he can be. Brandon is a man to be pitied, but through the frigid and naked lens that McQueen shoots with, it is Fassbender’s job to make sure that the film is not so cold that it becomes unbearable or repellent. Fassbender imbues his character with the nuance it needs to make the story believable, but even then, it remains more of a skeletal outline of a story than a true one. Nevertheless, the pained looks, the melancholy, and helplessness of such a deviant make what emotion the film does have palpable. Shame, more than Hunger, gives Fassbender the opportunity to play a man who must present himself as the stereotypical metropolitan yuppie who must hide under that successful façade and shelter the deviant and insidious sex addict underneath. Brandon is constantly having sex or masturbating or watching porn. He is insatiable.
As powerful as Fassbender’s performance is, it is not enough to carry the film on its own. Enter Carey Mulligan’s obnoxious Sissy, Brandon’s equally damaged younger sister. Mulligan plays the annoying well enough, and her rendition of “New York, New York” is absolutely heartbreaking. It is what her character reveals in Brandon that makes the film more human that it would have been originally. We are presented with two people who are escaping their pasts, two people whose early life was so damaged that both Brandon and Sissy find ways of manifesting their pain through questionable acts. Sissy can barely hold a relationship together and then starts sleeping with Brandon’s boss; Brandon is addicted to sex. AT every moment of the film, one of the two is self-sabotaging in one way or another, unable to truly find any solace or comfort in anything (or anyone) they do.
Both Brandon and Sissy are unable to escape the demons that are incessantly pursuing them, and they both reach low points that inevitably destroy the other. The relationship between Fassbender and Mulligan is completely believable, and the pain they cause one another is just as convincing. When Brandon runs, he is not only running away from the moans of pleasure of his sister with his boss, he is running away from her completely, as she is a reminder of the past he is trying to avoid and destroy. He may not destroy his past, but he destroys himself, with the drama aided by a chilling classical score by Harry Escot.
It is here where we run into the problem. As chilling and hauntingly beautiful as the film can be, it is just… cold. I have used that adjective several times throughout this review, but there does not seem to be a better way to describe the distance that McQueen creates between the film and its audience, between Brandon and the viewer, and between the damaged sibling relationship and, again, the viewer. Thus, were it not for Fassbender’s excruciatingly powerful performance, the film would be so unbearably sterile that one could barely get through it. The exploration into the human urges and sexual appetites of one man suffering from a debilitating addiction is fine, but the storyline is thin and, at the end, one asks themselves, “Well, that was great, but… what was the point?” For a director whose first project was the big, sinister Hunger, a film that imbued every cold image with some meaning and solace, often rooted in the political activism that Billy Sands was involved in or some religious imagery, Shame, in comparison, seems like it wants to do the same thing, but lack the material to articulate that kind of meaning. It hardly seems the kind of film to speak about all men and women who are sexually addicted, for such a statement in this kind of film would be rather grandiose and pretentious. One often runs into that kind of problem when trying to define or portray a group of people. However, it is equally troubling when you take the film as face value, where you only have Brandon and Sissy and their demons. It lacks the depth that one would expect from this kind of controversial art house film.
Regardless of this, Steve McQueen’s film is immaculate in the technical sense. Even with Brandon’s downfall, every frame perfectly epitomizes that cold, sterile feeling of the film. Brandon’s apartment is surprisingly tidy, its monochromatic textures revealing nary a detail about the man. There is a sense of minimalism to the production, where the color scheme is ice blue at times, and every building that Brandon inhabits or enters is decorated in a scant sense. Only the streets reveal the dirt underneath Brandon’s fingers, as well as the subway. The cinematography is impressive, and the editing style occasionally tiptoes around flashbacks and stream of consciousness. The explicit content of the film is really hardly anything worse one would see on any HBO show, but, it is no secret that the MPAA is an arbitrary system that often has bias against sexuality anyways.
Steve McQueen’s Shame artfully shows the damage that a sexual addict inflicts upon himself and the manifestation of personal demons through the addiction. Michael Fassbender gives a stunning performance, one that deserved more recognition by a certain organization. And while McQueen accomplishes creating a chilling and haunting film, he fails on a human level, never letting his audience really connect with Brandon. The film’s coldness distances the audience, and you after the film, you get the sense that there was something else there, but you don’t know, and are left contemplating the point of the whole thing. Just like the sexual addict in the film, in the end, you’re left a little unsatisfied and wanting a whole lot more.
Carey Mulligan’s heartbreaking performance of “New York, New York”
2012 in Film: #87
Hunger (2008) | Directed by Steve McQueen
Thoughts: Disturbing and contemplative, with each moving frame a thing of beauty or a thing of fear. Michael Fassbender gives a terrific performance. However, if you are unfamiliar with the historical context of the film, some of the emotion might be lost on you, and thus won’t ring as resonant.