Saturday, 11 February 2012

Sex and the Movies (Shame and Sleeping Beauty)

“Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; … through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.”

That’s Aristotle talking about catharsis in Poetics. I include the quote there because the point of tragic or quasi-tragic art has been on my mind a great deal, especially in relation to the last year in cinema where even the “comedies” had stringent tragic qualities (Young Adult, Carnage). And, I’m not all up on Aristotle in terms of Lit Theory but I hink his musings on catharsis are salient, because I feel that there’s a difference – albeit a thinly explicated one – between honest tragedy and miserablism. The concept more to one of the two films here, than the other but both are interesting for the way in which they manage to – deliberately – excise the emotion from sex. If I had time for a more scholastic dissertation I’d definitely love to discuss what that removal of sensation from sex has to do with society at large, today. But, this is not that dissertation.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) in Shame is a sex addict and spends the film moving through a series of women. In Sleeping Beauty Lucy (Emily Browning) isn’t a sex addict. She’s a somewhat de-sexualised prostitute who is willingly (?) sedated and sleeps – albeit, with no penetration – with men whilst unconscious. Which film wins for more avant-garde subject? Talk of one has taken over the blogosphere recently; talk of the other seems generally non-existent. For a film about a sex-addict, though, Shame seems particularly disinterested in sex, at least specifically. The film hopes to achieve it’s crux not as a dissertation on the role that sex plays in our lives but by becoming a somewhat dubious character study of a broken man. In fact, the fact that sex is his addiction ends up being treated as something of a non-issue. It’s the converse effect with Sleeping Beauty. Leigh, shoehorns Lucy’s job as if to make it a nonissue, but one of the most interesting assets of the film is how everything which could become something sexual is antiseptic, cold and impersonal. It makes me curious to see what Leigh would have done with an out-and-out film about sex.
But, yes, I was talking about catharsis. One of the things which takes me out, somewhat, of the fabric of Shame (in addition to an almost garish self-awareness in the way that McQueen presents the film) is the way in which McQueen seem more interested in the miserablist than the truly tragic. Such, even though it seems focused on being a character study a character is not really studied, or analysed so to speak; and to an extent so much of what the films seems focused on discussing seems to be so shallowly affected. Long takes of Brandon running through New York add little that’s particularly decisive to the film’s plateau. No, I’m not someone who requires a complete look into what makes characters the way they are, but in addressing sex addiction McQueen seems terribly focused on the surface of it all and not on what lies beneath.

The tactic of staying on the surface works better for me in Sleeping Beauty where we have no idea of who Lucy is, why she burns the money she makes or why she has this strange relationship with the alcoholic Birdman. Perhaps, it works better for me because I think less and less of Sleeping Beauty as an attempt at tragedy and more of a skewered fantasy with grave undertones. Or, perhaps it could be that, unlike Shame, Sleeping Beauty is (almost insularly) focused on being skin-deep. It is not an attempt at character study, but a supremely concentrated exercise in watching an almost dystopian world.

McQueen’s occasional superficiality in his story leaves it up to the actors to the insert the emotional, and though I still have not boarded the Michael Fassbender fan express (alas, I’ve not even felt the urge to book a ticket) he succeeds in making Brandon – a placid character to the extent of dullness – work. Incidentally, it’s the same dullness which Lucy in Sleeping Beauty is imbued with. One of the most interesting things about that film is Lucy’s willingness to allow her body to be used as a vessel. Brandon is more inconsistent moving from lightning bursts of anger, to chilling silences to seeming disinterest in all that’s around. For all of Fassbender’s work, though, I never feel as if I get to know Brandon and a bit of “housecleaning” towards the end fails to become that cathartic moment I feel it wants to be. Curiously, I’m more moved by Mulligan working with less, playing the token screen waif in all the ways you’d imagine her to be formed (jobless, hopelessly romantic, a budding singer, etc) and the film hits its best stride when the two share the screen making me much more curious for the chance to see what McQueen would have done with a film explicitly focused on the sibling dynamic (more films like that, filmmakers).

Ultimately, Shame is not a tragedy for me because it doesn’t make good on tragic elements and Sleeping Beauty isn’t one because it deliberately eschews it (even though the ending is just a bit too deliberately jolting for me to truly love it. They’re both interesting in the ways they use sex, and they both benefit from ensemble players in bit roles (Nicole Beharie and Ewen Leslie, respectively). Both of them provocative, in ways, but Sleeping Beauty intrigues with the way it is always so entrancing, Shame titillates with the suggestion of more beneath the surface but each time I kept trying to close my fist around something tangible there was nothing to hold on to but air. Which is, alas, such a dismally unfortunate way to feel about a film that's not bad, but....
Shame C+
Sleeping Beauty B


Brittani Burnham said...

Great post! I haven't seen either of these films, but I look forward to watching them when they become available to me.

Alex in Movieland said...

I really want to see Shame... Hope to do so in the next couple of weeks/months.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

brittani thanks, much. the masses have found more love for shame, but both are significant for their treatment of sex (still such a taboo issue for art).

alex i'm curious to what you'll think. are you a fassbender fan?