Sunday, February 26, 2012

Actor in Search of a Character

Michael Fassbender has a very strange quality. Unlike most famous actors, he looks like several personae in one.

From one angle he resembles the great German actor Maximilian Schell, which is not so far-fetched because he actually has a German mother and was born in her country.

From another angle he looks and acts a bit like Ed Harris, though he isn't blond and grew up Irish. But then Fassbender doesn't  look or sound like a traditional white Irishman either. There are passing resemblances to Daniel Day-Lewis and Anthony Hopkins too.

So the big difference between him and these actors is that he doesn't exactly look like, well, himself. Neither is any of this helped along by the fact that the two films I saw him in this week had such contradictory and indeterminate characters in them.

In Jane Eyre he plays a man who is torn between his pre-industrial sense of decency towards an ex-wife who has clearly gone bonkers and his desire for that great no-no: the governess. This unnatural state of affairs leaves him deeply misanthropic, if not filled with self-loathing, but his real character - through no fault of his own - seems to be somewhere else. Meanwhile, Mia Wasikowska delivers a fine performance of a woman who knows what she is and wants in a time when she was meant to serve and basically shut up.

In Shame he has even less to work with as a character. Brandon is a sex addict, someone who has an indeterminate corporate job and oozes a kind of cold, robotic sexuality. The fine soundtrack by Harry Escott tells us that he is a tragic character from the start, and this slowly reveals itself to be true. He is indeed an empty shell.

Director Steve McQueen saves us the background story as to why this man and his sister, played by Carey Mulligan, are so messed up. Almost everything happens slowly, which is not a criticism. Far from it. Her  rendition of the rousing New York, New York is painfully slow and slowly brilliant. You can almost hear souls breaking.

If anything, it's Mulligan who is the real find here. Up to now she's played somewhat moon-ish, cardigan-wearing-type characters, but not this time. Her Sissy is nothing short of fucked up, so much so that I didn't recognize her at first, and that's not only because she was stark naked, as Fassbender is full-frontally for much of the  movie.

All we are waiting for is to see how the penny is going to drop for this man whose work and home computer is stuffed with porn, as is his mind. Anything to keep whatever humiliated him in the past at a distance, and that includes his sister, who obviously only reminds him of that trauma. One of the few things that happens fast is a montage of the smut Brandon finally tries to eject from his life. It's almost subliminial cutting, but the image of an anus in big close-up remains. This is Brandon's psyche: the arse end of everything.

But the only clue we get to any interiority is the fact that he listens, somewhat implausibly, to Bach, and when he develops any feelings for a woman he can't get his considerable schlong up. That that women should be black (like the director), warm and have a character might also be forcing things a bit.

If we're meant to feel anything for this man whose lovemaking finally assumes a grimacing, ape-like desperation it's difficult at the time, just as it's difficult to believe that one of Sissy's more serious traumas (not for the first time) is going to be enough to change him. He will need something much more cathartic than that, but for all this there is something mesmerising, brave and finally moving about this film and its two siblings who - in the final analysis - only have each other.

And that's a real shame.

Neil Sonnekus

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