London Film Festival 2011: The Dark Side


Dark Horse (Todd Solondz) | We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay) | Shame (Steve McQueen) | Carnage (Roman Polanski) | A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg) | Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos)

The London Film Festival is the last of the year’s major showcases. The 55th edition has just finished, having run from 12–27 October. It’s been a good year. Among the highlights were several high-profile movies that deal with the destructiveness, and self-destructiveness, of people.

Abe (Jordan Gelber) in Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse articulates one school of thought. “We’re all horrible people—humanity’s a fucking cesspool,” he laments. Stuck in a rut, Abe goes downhill just when he finds the woman of his dreams, Miranda (Selma Blair). His assessment of human nature wouldn’t be out of place in one of Solondz’s earlier films, but Dark Horse plays more like a cross between The 40 Year Old Virgin and A Serious Man: a collector of sci-fi memorabilia (he’s a fan of Doctor Who and Gremlins), Abe wants nothing more than to see his parents leave for Florida so he can move Miranda into the family home. This isn’t the sort of ambition you’d usually expect a Solondz character, whose desires tend to be more transgressive, to harbor. There’s a paradox here that I kept on encountering: the cesspool-and-horrible-people films sometimes seemed tamer than the ones which take a playful approach.

Dark Horse. Courtesy of London Film Festival.

Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is another case in point: there’s really no explanation of the malevolence of the title character (played engrossingly as a teenager by Ezra Miller) except that he was born bad, if not downright diabolical. What this means is that the relationship with his mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton), upon which the film depends, lacks any dynamism. It’s never an intriguing struggle of wills that could go either way. The only way to get Ramsay’s latest to yield more than Manichean simplification is to stubbornly read We Need to Talk About Kevin against the grain, ignoring its shocking finale, and enjoy Kevin’s sabotage of family life as if he were a character in the kind of movie Todd Solondz made his name with. But this is to look at Ramsay’s film with quite a squint.

Shame. Courtesy of London Film Festival.

The hottest ticket of the festival was Steve McQueen’s Shame, which stars actor-of-the-moment Michael Fassbender as Brandon, a New York office worker with a sex addiction, and Carey Mulligan as his equally troubled sibling, Sissy, a singer who comes to stay in his Manhattan apartment. This followup to the rightly acclaimed Hunger could have been called Still Hungry: Brandon’s appetite for porn is insatiable and so is his passion for casual pickups. When he goes on a date with a coworker he struggles (despite all his charm—and he’s rather too charming for someone supposedly so troubled) with the ordinary bother of dating.

Both leads are commendable and McQueen’s visual flair is evident in such sequences as the long night-time run Brandon takes to work off his annoyance with the fact that Sissy is having sex with his vile boss in Brandon’s own bedroom. McQueen is a bold maker of cinematic images and deserves to be the focus of so much excitement. My problem with the film is that, like Hunger, its visual brilliance rests uneasily on a rather conventional therapy-speak psychology that holds childhood responsible for adult compulsions: “Brandon, I need you,” says Sissy at one point, “we’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.”  Isn’t this standard-issue Hollywood psychology? When Brandon picks a fight in a bar you might even think of Brokeback Mountain. Unless, that is, you take a lead from Miranda in Dark Horse when she responds to Abe’s startlingly fast marriage proposal with the question: “You’re not being ironic, like performance art or something?”

Carnage. Courtesy of London Film Festival.

It’s precisely a sense of performance—the games people play, the ritual pleasures—that allows other films shown at the film festival to escape therapeutic and moralistic categories and suggest much more interesting notions. In Roman Polanski’s exhilarating Carnage, the two couples who meet in the awkward aftermath of a schoolboy fight move without much ado from strained politeness to outright hostility and argument (not to mention drunken insults and cobbler-vomiting), but on more than one occasion banker-and-lawyer spouses Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz) are nearly out the door when something stops them and they plunge back into the verbal fray. “You do everything you can to escape the pettiness and you end up humiliated and alone,” says Penelope (a splendid Jodi Foster), but nothing could be further from the truth given how much tempestuous fun they’re all having together. I loved Carnage and I think that when you set Polanski’s idea of New York fun next to McQueen’s notion of New York shame and angst, it shows up the shortcomings of Shame’s seriousness.

A Dangerous Method. Photo: Liam Daniel. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

One of the reasons I think David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method is such a rich and brilliant film is that it presents psychoanalysis as a form of delightful conversation rather than a system of effective knowledge, especially during the momentous first meeting in Vienna between Freud (played with considerable grace by Viggo Mortensen) and Jung (a performance by Fassbender that I much preferred to his Brandon in Shame). The medical ideal of a cure and the scientific ideal of insight are sidelined in favor of the circular, wandering enjoyment to be had in talking (and talking and talking) about desire. The sting in the tail is that A Dangerous Method insists that the things that change the course of friendships and whole lives are the ones that don’t get talked about, even by psychoanalysts. The subtle, moving irony of the film is that so much hangs on a moment of silence, a refusal to talk—and on a dream that can’t be interpreted.

Alps. Courtesy of London Film Festival.

Another hot ticket at the festival was Alps, the new film from Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos. Fiercely intelligent and uncompromising, it was rightly popular. The title is the name of a cult-like group. The leader’s explanation is cryptic: the Alps, he says, couldn’t be replaced by any other range. But, he adds, who wouldn’t want to swap Mount McKinley or Ararat for an alp? The weirdness of all this is only gradually explained as a metaphor for the group’s activity: members approach recently bereaved people and offer to pretend to be dead loved ones. It gives a whole new spin on the idea of acting out. (I wondered if Lanthimos had seen the Joss Whedon TV show Dollhouse, which develops a comparable concept.)

At the Q&A after the screening I attended, I asked Lanthimos a question from the audience: which is a more scary idea—that cult members might offer to be surrogates like this, or that surviving family members could agree to stage such bitter ceremonies? The director laughed and replied that this was in essence a statement not a question and so something he couldn’t answer. I know what he meant so I’ll answer myself: the scary part is the family part and it’s scarier than anything in Shame.