Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Backs to the Wall: Alps and Shame
Both Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos and British director Steve McQueen have released massive international festival hits in the past few years: Dogtooth, a singularly unsettling allegorical black comedy, and Hunger, a transcendent chronicle of the IRA Prison Strike of the 1980's. With their latest films, one director has kept it low-key and local, and the other has gone American, keeping his Irish lead actor but moving to an NYC setting. The films, Alps and Shame, are both unmistakably their maker's, which is admirable for directors with only one previous feature (or in the case of Lanthimos, one obscure flop and one breakout success) to their name. Furthermore, they're also curious objects that suffer from very similar issues: they both tackle their ideas - fuzzy and vaguely complex in Alps, simple and familiar in Shame - in an oblique, non-confrontational manner, shying away from direct exploration and seeking to invite larger significance that's not warranted in the execution. But since I genuinely enjoyed their previous efforts, it's an example of sophomore slump that I greet more with interest and confusion than with frustration and hostility.
Following Dogtooth's primal scream of oddness and ambiguity, Lanthimos has decided to capitalize on the success of those traits and elevate them in Alps only a year later. Transplanting the social retardation and behavioral quirkiness of Dogtooth's suburban prison to a wider, more public and less specific milieu, Lanthimos reveals a group of eccentrics slowly and mysteriously, only exposing that which loosely connects them in an offhand bit of dialogue a third of the way through the film. It turns out that their regular meetings in a nondescript gymnasium are for an under-the-radar social service (deemed "Alps" for seemingly no reason other than to justify the title) that assists grieving individuals and families in the event of the sudden loss of a loved one by performing as that person and fully adopting their day-to-day routines. Aggeliki Papoulia, the brave actress who played the older sister in Lanthimos' prior film, is the performer we see most in Alps and the one who delivers said line of dialogue to an aging couple whose tennis-playing daughter was just killed in an accident. There's a cult-like strictness and dedication to the group that registers in Papoulia's consistent expression - which seems to suggest dread struggling to conceal itself beneath a collected exterior - and in her colleague Ariane Labed's nervous posture, a side-effect of her submission to a terrifyingly imposing dance coach played by Johnny Vekris who restricts her from graduating to pop music. Meanwhile, in episodes that are peripheral to the other narratives, members of Alps rehearse melodramatic, inscrutable dialogues to each other in clipped, uninflected tones as if amateur actors preparing for an audition, but they never break character.
The scenario is intriguingly flamboyant and fittingly bizarre, and as such it's a shame that Alps remains the mere skeleton of a film, a brilliant idea that was stillborn at the conception phase. Like Dogtooth, Alps presents a handful of motifs, metaphors, and subtexts to be sorted out, and specifically amplifies Dogtooth's concern for the influence of American media consumption on its characters. But rather than letting his ideas arise organically through the interaction of characters and environments, Lanthimos exerts a rigid conceptual grasp on every scene until the purpose of each individual shot is exhausted the instant an idea is effectively elucidated. What’s left is a series of repetitions of the same few notions, triggered with an approach to scene structure that grows increasingly coded and formulaic. Alps functions in the theoretical arena of spectatorship, aligning both the act of the griever and the movie-goer (in this film, everyone's an implicit movie-goer, reciting lines and ranking favorite actors and actresses) as false respites from death, fundamentally flawed attempts at forgetting that nonetheless ease the pain of reality. Unfortunately, there's rarely any basis of reality to assist the process of empathizing with these acts of profound selfishness. Lanthimos is too busy deflating his characters into controlled, undiscerning props (in order to warn against the mechanization of modern life that might result from projecting our emotions onto media) to examine the reactions of the married couple to their surrogate daughter, or to allow his main characters to contemplate the ethical implications of their service. As a depiction of a lopsided practice in an already lopsided world rather than a misguided venture unleashed on a convincing population, Alps neglects to confront the complexity of its themes as they relate to reality.
Because Dogtooth already took this route, it doesn't help that Lanthimos' treatment of the concept lacks the structural firmness of that film, which was a careful crescendo to a devastating final shot. Where Dogtooth's narrative assurance hinted at a conceptual assurance, Alps' insistent skirting around its major themes resembles the work of a director who is either too fuzzy on whether or not they make sense or too unsure of their legitimacy. Fittingly, the film waywardly shifts between its several mini-stories through fractured and vague cinematography, wherein only objects closest to the camera earn focus and the physical world is reduced to a smear of gray. When it's not hilarious - Lanthimos is better at making dark jokes of his characters than he is at drawing them as serious, if exaggerated, models of real human beings worth sympathizing with, which suggests a lot about his outlook on life - it's frequently dull and repetitive, evoking the feeling of a lecture that reached its climax early on and kept repeating minor variations on the same idea. What was seductive, suggestive, and horrific in Dogtooth is alienating, stiff, and preposterous in Alps, and unfortunately the film suffers from the feeling of being half-finished, its realization carrying only phantoms of the core ideas Lanthimos clearly wanted to tackle and its sense of ambiguity adrift from any semblance of cohesion.
Shame, on the other hand, is so coherent to the point of being simple-minded that McQueen's insistence upon creating an enigmatic, ambiguous atmosphere feels awkwardly disingenuous at best and utterly silly at worst. The entire film essentially advances the idea that Michael Fassbender's Brandon is a man whose seemingly high quality of living - a well-paying job, an uptown apartment with a panoramic view of the biggest city in the world, devilishly good looks - belies his emotional impotence and severe inner turmoil. Although this is the ultimate thesis, McQueen is persistent upon allowing the audience to try to tease out their own meaning by gesturing faintly in several different taboo-breaking directions - sex addiction, incest, corporate dehumanization - with ominous long takes and Duchampian blankness. When Brandon's predictably damaged vagabond sister Sissy Sullivan (Carey Mulligan with an alliterative name that sounds like a whore's psuedonym) arrives to crash at his apartment with nowhere else to go, the past's infiltration of the present metaphor is literalized by Brandon's inability to get down and dirty with NYC prostitutes and spend quality time with himself due to his sister's presence. The rampant sexual thirst so forcefully telegraphed in the film's opening montage is suffocated, the male ego is compromised, and regular, unquestioned behaviors Brandon mechanically performs (ogling women on the subway, extending his encyclopedia of internet porn) are put into perspective.
Unlike in Hunger, a work of great empathy, McQueen appears to despise his main character here, taking every opportunity to bounce light off of bar tables to demonize him. Whether subsuming him into a generically flat and sanitary office environment or scrutinizing his clumsy attempt at dating with a newly single co-worker (Nicole Beharie) whose smiley excitement swiftly degenerates throughout the course of a dinner ominously punctuated by McQueen's languorously zooming camera, Brandon encompasses the Rich, Privileged, Unappreciative Schmuck that is seemingly ubiquitous in New York (his boss, David Fisher (James Badge Dale), is another sterling example, and represents the only character McQueen dislikes more). Eyes Wide Shut and Last Tango in Paris already peered into - as rapper Nas put it - the "N.Y. State of Mind," and these types of sex-addled characters in particular, in much subtler ways, and it seems that the one new inquiry McQueen is bringing to it is his questionable implication, when Brandon attends a hellishly red gay club in a ditch effort for satisfaction, that homosexuality is the lowest form of debasement for this kind of soul-sick urban individual.
What makes Shame tougher to swallow is McQueen's reluctance to pick up the great opportunities he lays down for himself to understand his character. Crystallizing his irritating diffidence here is a sequence about halfway through the film when Sissy takes Brandon's boss back to the apartment after a night at the lounge club where she had a gig. Upon hearing the muffled noises of cheerful sex in a room nearby, it appears Brandon is destined for one of the possible courses of action: 1) confront the two of them angrily, 2) passive-aggressively masturbate in his room, or 3) call up a prostitute to assert his power in his own apartment. He does none of the above, and instead fleas the scene to go for a jog outside. Given his visceral outbursts throughout the rest of the film (screaming at Sissy, provoking jealousy out of anonymous strangers), it feels less like a natural extension of his character than a cop-out by McQueen when given a chance to thoroughly explore the inner state of his character. He favors a technically complicated and lushly photographed tracking shot that simply illuminates Brandon's anxiety and drops the troubling scenario placed before him. In numerous other instances, McQueen resorts to his stylish aesthetic flair (and he has a great deal of it) in ways that purport to visualize inner conflicts but actually just de-emphasize and abstract them. What is left is a shell of a person and a conflict, the gaps of which are filled with repeated shots of Fassbender ruffling his perpetually feathered hairdo or crying out in the rain with a scrape on his face as the predictable downfall narrative reaches its fruition.
Just as Lanthimos devises esoteric codes and ciphers for his messages, McQueen shrouds in mystery a schematic script that redundantly exposes its character's primal sickness and aversion to emotionality. Both directors have taken a prior strength and applied it forcefully to new material only to reveal the specificity and shortcomings of that strength. Lanthimos' preference for broad allegory over narrative and characterization is jeopardized when aimed at a larger ensemble and a more diffuse setting. McQueen's artful detachment made poetry out of a historical event that was chiefly about collective action and brutality, whereas the same approach is rendered empty in the face of original material that favors individual introspection. Perhaps the bright side is that there is still great promise contained in these films that ensures future improvement: the squirmy comedy and dissociative editing in Alps (the superior of the two films) and the bold visual statements and skill with actors evoked in Shame. But the films' fear of direct engagement is their fundamental undoing. Quite simply, these are portraits of people with their backs to the wall in which the directors themselves have their backs to the wall, refusing to speak on the matter.