Everything makes sense now…

I’ve only just noticed the similarities between the posters of these 2011 films.

I mean, Jane Eyre was totally the Lisbeth Salander of the nineteenth century.

“Michael”: Subversive and sublime…

Markus Schleinzer’s directorial debut is a dispassionate portrait of a paedophile (Michael Fuith) and his captive child (David Rauchenberger). In a practically featureless environment, the daily yet distorted routine of this de facto father and son becomes unwillingly etched in the mind as we follow their coldly compelling relationship and everything in between. Even though it’s clearly designed not to entertain, there are still some brilliantly crafted scenes here (to name just three: a predatory encounter at a Go-Kart track, an awkward yet illuminating exchange of Xmas gifts, and a backfired repeat of an obscene film quotation), all of which are infused with a macabre and subversive sense of humour. Such novel fervour even extends to the film’s score: Schleinzer’s choice of Boney M’s “Sunny” certainly surpasses Fincher’s employment of Enya’s “Orinco Flow” in ‘The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo’ with its ironic panache, lingering mood and dark wit.

For every beautifully subversive scene, however, there are plenty featuring such disturbingly reflexive actions as Michael pre-emptively digging a woodland grave for his captive child when he becomes seriously ill. The film is, by no one’s standards, an easy ride: as Schleinzer records one daily task to the next, Michael becomes a solitary figure in clinically framed compositions. Whether he’s cleaning the kitchen, ironing his clothes, or assembling a bunk-bed, his posture is at one with his geometric confines, his inherent compulsions mirroring Schleinzer’s own relentless formalism. This directorial approach serves many purposes: it establishes an impending sense of menace (especially thanks to the ample silence of the soundtrack); it reflects the methodical take on the monotony religiously adhered to by Michael (whenever it’s close to cracking, the camera set-ups become simultaneously less stationary); and it ensures the absence of lurid sensationalism (there’s an early scene in the film of Michael washing his cock in the bathroom sink: we don’t witness the implied rape, but just a single glimpse of the aftermath).

Some critics have complained that such detachment borders on indifference, feeling that ‘Michael’ languishes in grim realism to its own detriment. (Presumably they expected more shocks from such provocative subject matter.) Make no mistake, ‘Michael’ is not ‘The Woodsman’. There’s neither explicit redemption nor regret. It avoids any value-heavy shock-tactics and simplistic explanations, choosing to focus on subtle, clinical observations of character. Schleinzer almost fetishizes the monotonous and thereby creates an atmosphere where you can identify with the unidentifiable (coming eerily close to answering the question, “what makes man a monster: his desires or decisions?”).

Much has been made of Schleinzer’s previous collaborations with Michael Haneke, excessively noting his inspired casting of the children in ‘The White Ribbon’. A better comparison, I think, can be made with ‘The Piano Teacher’: the restless fascination with the underbelly of suburban life, prodding secrets through first-person narratives and thus alleviating any obstacles of judgement. The repeat shots, including the steel blue door being ominously shut and bolted each night, become perversely familiar to us just like Erika Kohut’s sexually digressive interludes in her teaching schedule, emphasizing the warped banality of life and juxtaposing the order of Michael’s daily routine with the conceptual bedlam of his basement secret. Copying Haneke’s signature stylings, the precise and largely static framings convey the emotional isolation of our deeply flawed protagonist and his own sense of confinement, literal and figurative.

Unlike Haneke’s perpetual lecturing, however, it’s entirely left to the audience as to what they believe this cinematic piece is really about (see Peter Bradshaw’s review, uniquely claiming that ‘Michael’ is a satire on single parenthood). For me, it’s an unsparingly intimate exposé of the manifold ways in which an individual can choose to carve a world for themself when little else, thanks to restrictions both tangible and not, is available to them. One thing definitely remains clear-cut, though: ‘Michael’ is an astonishingly assured debut, scalding both in its dark intensity and obscure meaning.

Another reason why Clooney’s great

Nothing’s more tiring than media-fuelled speculation over the sexual orientation of film stars (e.g. Kevin Spacey, Tom Cruise, Jake Gyllenhaal). And often outright denials only help to reinforce homophobia. That’s why this interview with George Clooney was so unexpected:

The Advocate:

The gay rumor has followed you for years.
I think it’s funny, but the last thing you’ll ever see me do is jump up and down, saying, “These are lies!” That would be unfair and unkind to my good friends in the gay community. I’m not going to let anyone make it seem like being gay is a bad thing.

My private life is private, and I’m very happy in it. Who does it hurt if someone thinks I’m gay? I’ll be long dead and there will still be people who say I was gay. I don’t give a shit.

I love George Clooney. No homo.

“A Dangerous Method”: Cronenbergian, it certainly isn’t

From a cinemaniac with an unrivalled CV of obscenities, the only thing shocking about ‘A Dangerous Method’ is how normal it is. Aside from a few select spanking scenes, there’s little of what we’ve come to expect from the director who brought us the gynecological nightmare ‘Dead Ringers’ and the orifice-obsessed ‘Videodrome’. This ain’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Just as disappointed as when Scorsese took a left turn with ‘Age of Innocence’, critics have been unwilling to note the subtle and refined look of ‘A Dangerous Method’ as merely a continuation of Cronenberg’s evolution. No longer is he troubled by the disturbing things that could happen to our bodies, but the misery that can take place within. After toying with bodily inefficiencies (‘Spider’), the things that drive us to violence (‘A History of Violence’) and matters of identity (‘Eastern Promises’), it seems to me only natural that this Canadian extraordinaire would turn his lens on the discipline of psychoanalysis.

In this latest endeavour, Cronenberg ramps up the psycho-babble in the war of wills between early twentieth century doctors Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), as the former begins to apply the latter’s radical new ‘talking cure’ on a disturbed Russian patient, Sabina Speilmen (Keira Knightley). If you’re not a fan of dialogue-heavy films, then the academic interest surrounding this Freud-feud should only be a further reason for you to give in to your natural urges and go see ‘Project X’ instead. Cronenberg, on the other hand, gives the audience a slow paced, almost Merchant-Ivory piece of costume drama (with fetishism and adultery, of course) that follows Sigmund’s efforts to convince Carl that all human neuroses stem from our sexual desires while he spends every other second of the film sucking on a long, fat cigar (oral fixation, anyone?)

Hampton’s screenplay is the best kind of biopic: it makes no attempt to impossibly cover the breadth of its subjects’ entire lives, but rather focuses on a specific portion that nonetheless allows us to grasp the characters in full (take note, Abi Morgan and Dustin Lance Black). Mortensen and Fassbender excel as the rivalling duo, displaying their notoriously fierce intellect and latent passion perfectly onscreen. As for Knightley, many critics have called her performance an utter parody – especially in the early scenes when she shrieks and writhes like a woman possessed. I don’t entirely agree with such a damning diagnosis; there are some otherwise dull scenes that she lifts by just her sheer commitment and professionalism. Even if you find the underlying self-awareness of her performance distracting (some attempts to be beautiful even in deranged madness), it never threatens to derail a film that is just so well-crafted by the exquisite cinematography of Peter Suschitzky.

With his choice of material, however, Cronenberg has seemingly repressed his own natural instincts and thus left himself open to extensive analysis. ‘A Dangerous Method’ is still a provocative film with an erotic undertow, but there’s little spark of the visionary body-horror that he directs with such force and feeling. I recognise the fact that he has long been a filmmaker defined by his contradictions, but this addition to his oeuvre feels sadly staid by comparison (I can also think of at least four biopic-specialist directors who could have done an equally as strong job). This does not take away from, as I’ve said, the effective cinematography and easy rhythm of the acting, but with Cronenberg at the helm it all feels overly sedate and unduly chilly. Although he perfectly balances its orchestral soundtrack and visual theatricality, I was still hoping ‘A Dangerous Method’ would feature a spontaneous, naked sauna fight with Russian mobsters a la ‘Eastern Promises.’ I don’t know what that says about me, but in true Freudian style I suspect it has something to do with my mother.