TELLURIDE: Michael Fassbender and a tale of two movies

Posted by · 11:54 pm · September 4th, 2011

Today’s screening of “Shame” was the big note of anticipation for me at this year’s Telluride fest. After bowing in Venice earlier this morning to generally positive praise, my hopes were still high that Steve McQueen made good on the promise of “Hunger” three years ago. And did he ever.

I’m tired, at the end of a four-film stretch today, so I’ll try not to wander here too much. But the story of the film is Michael Fassbender’s remarkable performance as a sex addict with a dark past that McQueen only vaguely addresses on the page, allowing the actor to indicate with subtlety and precious strokes of nuance what might be eating away at him.

Once again, McQueen utilizes long takes to allow his actors to explore in the harsh gaze of the camera. But the technique, perhaps more than his previous effort, even, becomes a tool for navigating the viewer. When Fassbender is filmed jogging for a number of minutes, the camera dollying alongside him as he passes intersection after intersection, the effect goes beyond mere observation. McQueen is ushering us, without cheap manipulation, into the character’s mindset.

Carey Mulligan, it should be said, is fantastic as Fassbender’s sister, the two of them sharing a damaged reality with little to no grace in sight. But the film is an intense character study with a title that suggests something so dark as to remain unspoken, yet so evident. I think it could have been something purer had a final plot point not been so obvious and dramatic, but the takeaway here is Fassbender’s finest performance to date. And in a year that has already brought an above average turn in the summer blockbuster “X-Men: First Class,” the actor has turned on something that apparently can’t be turned off.

Or can it? I found myself absolutely suffocated by David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” an excruciatingly uncinematic adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s Sigmund Frued/Carl Jung play “The Talking Cure,” which itself was taken from the John Kerr book which lent the film its title. And in it, I was surprised at how inconsequential Fassbender — in the only true leading role of the film — came off.

The stage origin of the material has apparently kept the film caged in, never breaking out in any truly filmic way. And it’s astonishing, given that Cronenberg is at the helm. Austerity and truthfulness may have been a goal (and a noble one, that), but nothing about this film seems to register as something that needed to be told on celluloid.

Hampton is such a fine writer (an Oscar winner for his “Dangerous Liasons” adaptation over 20 years ago) that I was taken aback at the talking head nature of the thing. The white space must have been aplenty in his script as it is wall-to-wall dialogue, with no real visual identity to the film as it pertains to his players, whose identities and character are evident only in the words they speak. One string of them as uttered by Fassbender’s Jung regarding Viggo Mortensen’s Freud struck a chord: “I’m disappointed by his rigid pragmatism.” I could say the same of the film.

Fassbender feels of so very little consequence here. It was like a cold bucket of ice water to the face after McQueen’s film. Keira Knightley often tumbles off the rails and rarely seems to have a hold on her character (which could have been a virtue given that she’s playing a mentally ill individual, but it only smacks of uncertainty and lack of guidance). The only joy I found in the entire enterprise was Mortensen’s delicious submersion into his role.

Mostly, though, I’m stunned at Cronenberg’s willful anonymity here. I didn’t need overt Cronenberg. I didn’t need risque or edgy Cronenberg. I just wanted a movie, not a toothless string of lines of dialogue.

It made for a very curious double feature today, to say the least. And I don’t expect much Oscar traction for either. “Shame” could go a very long time without finding a distributor, given its extremely racy nature. Though word is Fox Searchlight is sniffing around the film as the studio continues to slightly change its typical tack.

“A Dangerous Method,” meanwhile, could garner some below-the-line attention (it’s handsomely mounted on that front), while I could see Knightley joining the conversation for Best Supporting Actress. But little else seems realistic. Hampton’s talky script might get some love from writers with a passion for delicious conversation, but again, I’m feeling down on it really ringing many bells. We’ll see have to see how it does at Toronto.

Guy’s take on the Cronenberg can be found here. His thoughts on the McQueen here.

[Photo: See-Saw Films/Film 4]

→ 30 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily · Reviews

30 responses so far

  • 1 9-05-2011 at 12:15 am

    Jesse Crall said...

    Shame looks more interesting…Your take on Knightley seems mixed. Is she in the discussion for best supporting based on what you thought was a strong performance, or what you felt was an attractive performance for voters?

    Good job as usual, Kris. Your and Guy’s coverage has been ridiculously through and thoughtful.

  • 2 9-05-2011 at 12:16 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    RE: Knightley, I’d say the latter.

  • 3 9-05-2011 at 12:17 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    And thanks for that.

  • 4 9-05-2011 at 12:24 am

    Kevin Ketchum said...

    Viggo Mortensen seems to be getting all the best in show notices for an otherwise mixed reception to the film. Is there a Best Supporting Actor campaign to work with there? Viggo is my favorite actor currently working and up there in my top favorite actors of all time. It amazes me that the man only has one Oscar nomination to his name (for a brilliant turn in Eastern Promises no doubt). I’d love to see him finally get another nomination, if not a win, for playing a role as delicious as Freud. What do you think? Is there something to work with there?

  • 5 9-05-2011 at 12:28 am

    Kevin Ketchum said...

    Also, you think IFC will pick up Shame like they did with Hunger?

  • 6 9-05-2011 at 12:35 am

    Juan said...

    What you think of Mortensen’s chances for a nom?

  • 7 9-05-2011 at 12:41 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I don’t see a nod for Mortensen. The film’s best chance is for Knightley’s histrionics to register, IMO.

  • 8 9-05-2011 at 12:46 am

    Kevin Ketchum said...

    That’s a bummer. The Oscars are where subtlety in acting goes to die, huh?

  • 9 9-05-2011 at 1:35 am

    Beau said...

    Better than his performance in ‘Hunger’? That’s saying something…

  • 10 9-05-2011 at 2:52 am

    Michael said...

    Great article Kris – thanks for keeping us posted on all the happenings at Telluride. Shame needs to find a distributor pretty damn quickly please and thank you! And A Dangerous Method sounds like even more of a dud than before, although I will surely still see it b/c I compulsively have to see all the hyped up prestige films that come out every year no matter what. I would have preferred a return to form from Cronenberg (you mention that you didn’t NEED an overt risque or edgy Cronenberg film, but I surely did want that.) It’s a bummer when a film you had high hopes for just doesn’t live up to your expectations. It’s almost even worse if the film is just slightly mediocre b/c it becomes that much more forgettable.

  • 11 9-05-2011 at 3:06 am

    James said...

    Well that’s disappointing….about A Dangerous Method, that is.

  • 12 9-05-2011 at 3:27 am

    tony rock said...

    In my opinion it’s hard guage a film’s critical reception from its festival debut alone. Must we forget Inglourious Basterds? Mixed reception at Cannes followed by great reviews when it actually opened, which then led to Oscar nominations. I wouldn’t count out any of the Venice/Telluride films yet except for W.E.

  • 13 9-05-2011 at 4:35 am

    ninja said...

    “I don’t see a nod for Mortensen. The film’s best chance is for Knightley’s histrionics to register, IMO.”

    That`s sad but also right on the money. AMPAS loves histrionics. For some reason, they think OTT acting = great acting, most difficult acting or whatever. Of course, in a typical Oscar bait, mind you, cause horror genre is full of histrionics but rarely makes the cut.

    KK = Zellwegger 2011 by the look of it. OTT performance that is getting mixed reception but is right up the AMPAS alley like other acresssing noms and wins that now even industry memebers who voted agree shouldn`t have happened to begin with. Yet they`ll do it all over again.

    Kris, a question. With baity movies getting so-so reception (none seem to be unbeatable or clear frontrunner at the moment), what are the chances for some well-received blockbusters to fill in BP spots – Potter, Apes, The Help?

  • 14 9-05-2011 at 6:15 am

    JJ1 said...

    Sad to hear about ADM.

    ‘Shame’ sounds great.

    I wonder: if the voters get the screeners and really take the time to watch ‘Shame’ — if Fassbender could get nominated for this performance; if it’s just that TOO good to dismiss.

  • 15 9-05-2011 at 11:21 am

    Danielle said...

    Ninja, why don’t you wait to see the movie for yourself? Keira has gotten some really positive, excellent, standout reviews, and not simply because of her “histrionics” or because she went “OTT”. There are a lot of critics who found her performance fascinating.

    Kris, you say that Keira rarely has hold on her character, but it’s only been the first 20 min or so that have divided critics. Most seem to agree that she’s great once the hysteria subsides. Do you not agree?

  • 16 9-05-2011 at 12:11 pm

    Liz said...

    To think, it could’ve been alot worse if Cronenberg didnt tone it down from how bad Spielran really was:

  • 17 9-05-2011 at 12:19 pm

    Ryan said...

    It’s a shame that Knightley’s performance seems to fall flat during its most demanding moments.

  • 18 9-05-2011 at 12:34 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Danielle: Maybe the early stuff put a bad taste in my mouth, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a bad performance, I just think it’s kind of a confused performance.

  • 19 9-05-2011 at 12:34 pm

    Nick Davis said...

    Intrigued by both the Shame rave and the Dangerous Method dislike. I’m glad for the serendipity of you and Guy getting to comment on some of the same films at the same time and multiplying the points of view – even when you both like a movie like Shame but express different reasons. Eager to revisit these reviews when the films open nationally.

    (p.s. Apologies for horrible pedantry, but: Carey Mulligan, not Carrie. Just to keep the dueling Tags from splitting your coverage into separate streams.)

  • 20 9-05-2011 at 3:16 pm

    Danielle said...

    But if how Keira performed (facial tics and all) was how asylum patients truly behaved in those times, then how can it be confused/at fault?

  • 21 9-05-2011 at 3:33 pm

    Taylor said...

    @Danielle, I’m anxious to get to see the film and Keira’s performance for my self. But anyways, yes, crazy people may act that way and technically Knightley probably does all those things on screen, but its not like the conversation ends there….there’s still the important question of whether its executed convincingly or whether it rings completely false.

  • 22 9-05-2011 at 3:39 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Thanks Nick. No idea why I did that out of the blue. Fatigued I guess.

  • 23 9-05-2011 at 3:49 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Danielle: I don’t think asylum patient behaviour is particularly period-specific. And a performance is about more than tics, however carefully researched.

  • 24 9-05-2011 at 4:11 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Danielle: It’s not specifically the tics I’m talking about. She just seems lost. Which, again, would be a virtue if she’s playing it that way due to the role, but I don’t think it’s as refined as that.

  • 25 9-05-2011 at 5:29 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Can’t wait to see Knightley to see for myself if she seems period appropriate, character appropriate, or lost in the role. {rubbing my hands together}

  • 26 9-05-2011 at 10:17 pm

    daveylow said...

    Thanks for the comments on Shame. I’m seeing this in Toronto at the Gala screening.

    I had to laugh at your exhaustion after four days at Telluride. I spend 10 days in Toronto seeing 30 plus films and I know I’m older than you. Now that’s exhausting.

  • 27 9-06-2011 at 7:04 am

    Mike_M said...

    Kris, did you see Jane Eyre yet? Another great Fassbender performance

  • 28 9-06-2011 at 8:31 am

    JJ1 said...

    Regarding Jane Eyre. I enjoyed it. And I thought Fassbender was stellar.

    But I’m not an Eyre fanatic. And I’ve read wildly differing opinions in his Rochester – from “best depiction yet” to “poor and miscast”.

  • 29 9-06-2011 at 8:32 am

    JJ1 said...

    on, not ‘in’. ^