Disclaimer: Some time ago I promised my non-French-speaking friends (and myself) to try and translate my blog in English. I just found the time and courage to do so, knowing all too well that many subtleties, digressions and puns might get lost in translation - as fluent as my English can be, I'm not a native speaker and I don't pretend to be one. Just as I'm not a professional movie critic and don't pretend to be one.
La version française de ce post est accessible ici.
It took me a while before I started to get interested in Steve McQueen beyond the unfortunate homonymy. Actually, if I ever went so far as to watch his movies - as I'm writing this two have been released: the tersely titled Hunger and Shame -, it's mostly because the rumour had it that they featured a first-class actor.
Rumour can be a bitch in misleading us but there is no such thing here. It is indeed clear to everyone that Michael Fassbender is not gracing our screens with his presence (in the full, carnal, physical, sense of the word) for the mere but volatile pleasure of providing entertainment. Only time will tell just how much he is able to take our breath away, but personally my money is on him becoming one of the world's finest actors - if the big bad piggies of stardom don't have him for breakfast first, that is.
Hunger: the political fight of I.R.A. activist Bobby Sands during his detention in the ghastly prison of Maze, from the gruelling "dirty protest" (urin oozing from under the cell's doors, excrements smeared on the walls) to the hunger strike that ultimatly caused his death. In front of the camera Fassbender's body is displayed as a battlefield, the place where the audience is given the opportunity to experience this peculiar war through the prism of the senses and every abuse that imprints the skin of the prisoners. The only moment of relief is provided by the (verbal) confrontation between Bobby and a priest who has come to try and talk him out of toughening his stance any further. Body and life are discarded altogether as the ultimate form of protest, the final rejection that is opposed to those who refuse to see or hear - because the only thing to do then is to weigh them down with the deserted, mangled remains.
Shame: a few days in the life of Brandon Sullivan, a dashing young executive living in a desert of his own making, which aridity is as carefully maintained as it is meticulously scheduled. His flat is a study in stylish vacuity (its clean-cut lines in hues of black, grey and white seem to come straight out of the "Urban chic" pages of a trendy interior decoration catalogue) and, likewise, his private life is spent deliberately avoiding any meaningful human contact (he ignores desperate messages left on his answering machine and barely exchanges a few words or drinks with his co-workers). Brandon's secret lies in the fact that his life revolves around sex - the one he downloads, the one he pays for, the one he's offered, the one he fakes by masturbating several times a day. Pleasure is never in the picture, all this is about quenching the thirst and fiercely pursuing the scarce moments when self-awareness is abolished and oblivion granted - only to fall harder into self-loathing. What is probably the key to Brandon's character is provided by his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan): "We're not bad people. We just come from a bad place."
This sentence alone puts everything into perspective: without it Sissy would just be tramp material to us and Brandon, yet another horndog. And everything falls into place: the body that Brandon wears out through the jogging and the pounding is at the same time a war site and a weapon, just like it was for the Bobby Sands depicted in Hunger. A war that likely originates from childhood abuses - although this is never clearly stated, the few clues that are given allow us to infer that much - and which is also perceptible in Sissy's urges to open her heart and legs to the most obvious Mr Wrong she meets. Both brother and sister fight the same fight against their heavy past, through each of their pitiful attempts at starting up a true relationship, one that lasts, one that extends beyond the exploitation of one partner by the other. As slender, toned and desirable as Brandon's body is, it still is a sick body harbouring a crippled soul, a body touching other bodies as a substitute for this shrunken soul unable to reach for other souls.
In this post I wanted to focus on this acting body because McQueen's movies hardly provide any information about the psychology or the background of their characters, and these have little dialogue to voice their feelings - with the notable exception of the central piece of Hunger. I also find the narrative to be a tad heavy on ellipses which end up being confusing. Not that I have anything against this device, mind you - I only wish that McQueen were rigorous enough in his storytelling to pull that off successfully. This disconcerting narrative is part of the reason why the audience has to rely on the actors - and most of all, on Fassbender since he plays a pivotal role in both instances - to feel and understand what is passed on through these stories. The coldness and abstraction of the cinematography work partly against both movies and make it apparent that the director is taking great care not to leave aside any element in his demonstration. Although this choice emphasizes the technical performance of the actor rather than the empathy he is supposed to induce in us, it makes no doubt that Fassbender rises to the challenge. I can't wait to see the day when Fassbender and his dancing body will run into a great director - because this will blow our minds.