The day after seeing Take this Waltz, I attended a party at Sarah Polley’s alma mater, the Canadian Film Centre (CFC). Polley wasn’t in attendance, unfortunately, but spirits at the annual BBQ were high because several alumni have hotly buzzed films at the festival, including Waltz, Ingrid Veninger’s i am a good person/ i am a bad person, and Randall Cole’s 388 Arletta Avenue. CFC is Canada’s top school for advanced training in film, television, and new media. Oscar-nominated director Norman Jewison founded CFC, which also produces shorts and feature films, and it runs the WorldWide Shorts Film Festival (one of only three festivals accredited by the AMPAS). Aside from the school’s recent films, you might have seen CFC in the news lately when it was announced that director Christopher Nolan selected CFC as the charity of his choice to receive a $100,000 donation. The annual BBQ was a fun event overall and a nice celebration of Canadian talent during the festival.
My first screening of the day was Steve McQueen’s Shame, and was it ever an exciting one! One of the great things about the Venice/TIFF overlap is that enthusiasm builds considerably whenever a TIFF selection triumphs in Venice. Post-Venice, the ticket lines (and Twitter) are all a flurry with extra-anticipation. TIFF-goers were so eager for Shame that I arrived at the venue an hour and a half before the screening to find the ticket holders line beginning to wrap around a few streets.
I’m very pleased to say that Shame lives up to the hype. From the stark opening sequence, director Steve McQueen fiercely thrusts the audience into the mechanics of sexual addiction. As Brandon (Michael Fassbender) broods around his apartment naked each morning, he blocks out the world around him. It’s not until Brandon flips on some porn or picks up a hooker that some spark of life seems to alight. Brandon will readily screw any living being in order to function. As portrayed by Fassbender, however, its plainly evident that Brandon’s sense of relief is not akin to being alive. Brandon is a junkie, and Fassbender’s smoldering performance palpably conveys the itch that mounts within Brandon as he awaits his next fix.
While Brandon’s appetite feeds itself, his sister is another story. Bandon receives a surprise visit from his younger sister, Sissy (played by a jaw-droppingly good Carey Mulligan), who is possibly more self-destructive than Brandon. An emotional wreak, Sissy seems utterly without direction, despite making progress as a lounge singer. It’s something Brandon realizes in a beautiful scene in which he and a friend attend one of Sissy’s performances. It befalls on both the siblings’ cravings, however, to avoid addressing the problem altogether and simply slap on the Band-Aid solutions of sex and booze.
It’s the hunger of the addiction that McQueen and Fassbender capture so well. While Fassbender bravely delivers a fully stripped performance (as do many of his female co-stars), Shame never titillates or teases; rather, the film excites the mind through a morbid curiosity and a yearning to understand Brandon and Sissy’s cravings. McQueen’s observational style puts the viewer in a position to sit back and contemplate Brandon’s self-destructive bent, yet the camera does not frame Brandon’s addiction from an angle of judgement. McQueen rather focuses on the psychology of the addiction, which ultimately is what makes the film so distressing because the performances and direction of Shame replicates this mindset so well.
Shame was followed by another psychological film, albeit a wholly different one: Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In. Skin is an immediate departure for the great Spanish director, not just because it’s a thriller, but also because it’s darker and more explicit than anything he’s made in some time. Antonio Banderas stars as Robert Legdgard, a plastic surgeon who develops a super form of synthetic skin and uses an imprisoned woman (Elena Anaya) as his guinea pig.
The plot is preposterous, but Almodovar almost makes it work through his energetic pacing and playful style. The tone of his direction is at odds with the subject matter, though, so The Skin I Live In gets a bit muddled in its execution. It is, however, evident that Almodovar is breaking new ground with his latest film: it’s certainly his most ambitious film in some time, and he still manages to put an Almodovar-esque tint on a story that will make skin crawl. Despite reservations, The Skin I Live In warrants a viewing primarily for Almodovar’s admirable experiment with genre – Skin is an sly hybrid (or hodgepodge) of thriller, B-movie, melodrama, and comedic farce. The downfall of The Skin I Live In may simply be that throughout the convoluted unfolding of events, my mind simply kept wandering back to Shame.
*The festival also paid tribute to the tenth anniversary of 9/11 by replacing the pre-screening commercials with a short film that offered a retrospective on how people felt after the attacks during TIFF 2001. Interviewees such as TIFF director Piers Handling, filmmakers Ingrid Veninger and Mira Nair, and critic Peter Howell all expressed how the tone and mood changed that day. Although screenings were reshuffled and the extravagant red carpets and press conferences were withheld that day, all involved observed how the choice to continue the festival that year offered hope, comfort, and refuge. It seems the show must go on.
Monday’s screenings: Rampart, 388 Arletta Avenue, Dark Horse, and Martha Marcy May Marlene.