Contemporary art United Kingdom

Sexual obsessions and psychoanalysis take centre stage

Steve McQueen’s “Shame” explores addiction; Jan Svankmajer’s “Surviving Life” charts one man’s disturbing dreams

Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen's "Shame"

Steve McQueen takes a step slightly further away from the day-to-day preoccupations of the art world and more firmly into the film world with his second feature, “Shame”. It’s a degree less formal than his previous venture, with a more conventional story arc, no previously known central protagonist (his first film, “Hunger”, had the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands as its central character) and a visual style that, while controlled, assured and arresting, draws more on the language of conventional narrative cinema, with fewer of the slow-moving tableaux of the earlier film.

McQueen himself, though, will have none of it, asserting at a press conference at the London Film Festival, that he makes no distinction between his visual art and filmic output. So he says. That there are many and varied differences, but much shared territory also, is too long a debate for this space. So it’s a movie, made by a fine artist (who went to film school, as well as art college).

Michael Fassbender (who portrayed Sands in “Hunger”) plays Brandon, a successful New York marketing executive with a private compulsion: he’s a sex addict. He’s not particularly discerning: bar encounters, prostitutes and online porn sites are all fair game, but anything approaching commitment is not on the list. A date with a co-worker who wants a slightly more conventional dating cycle leaves him impotent. When she leaves he calls a prostitute and his ability is restored.

That his addiction is a big risk is made clear early on when his work computer is taken away for a service. When it’s returned, he’s given a warning by his boss that it needs to stay clean of the videos and images that have been found on it, but nonetheless he’s given a pass as he regularly delivers the results the company wants.

Brandon’s otherwise ordered life in his sterile Manhattan apartment is jolted when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a singer, arrives in need of somewhere to stay. She’s vulnerable, needy and bears the scars of self-harm. She’s also quick to jump into bed with his otherwise sexually frustrated boss. That it happens at Brandon’s apartment is enough to drive him out for the night, resulting in a bravura, many-blocks-long tracking shot from McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, leading to a series of explicit sexual encounters that show just what risks Brandon will take.

There’s little by way of back story. McQueen and his co-writer, Abi Morgan, said they used stories gleaned from sex-addiction sufferers they interviewed in New York; British addicts, they explained, were reluctant to share their stories. The most we get on screen, as Brandon and Sissy are reunited after a night that has wreaked havoc in both their lives, is Sissy’s searing plea for redemption for both of them: “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” How bad that place must have been is left to the viewer’s imagination.

McQueen’s ability as a maker of films of great style and imagination, let alone great beauty, is confirmed here, although its subject matter means that, like “Hunger”, “Shame” is not an easy watch. If there is a distinction to be made between fine artist and film-maker (an increasingly contentious presumption), McQueen continues to show that he can keep a foot on either side of the line without compromise.

Unsettling times

The Czech artist Jan Svankmajer has exhibited drawings, collages and sculptures, but is best known as a maker of surreal and unsettling stop-frame animations, such as his 1988 take on Alice in Wonderland. His latest (eighth) feature-length animation is “Surviving Life (Theory and Practice)”, which goes on release in the UK this month.

It’s a tale of Eugene, a man increasingly disturbed by dreams in which he leads a double life with a younger woman. To make sense of the dreams he visits a psychoanalyst. But it becomes harder for him to tell which is his real life and which is the dream world. As ever with Svankmajer, the scenarios are populated with bizarre juxtapositions and joltingly impossible situations that are sometimes very funny and in other moments grotesque and disturbing.

“Surviving Life” was released in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia a year ago but, festival screenings aside, it has only had a theatrical release in Japan until now.

The easy comparison for those less familiar with Svankmajer’s work is with “Monty Python” animator and film director Terry Gilliam, although Gilliam himself owes a debt of influence to pioneering avant garde film-maker Stan Vanderbeek. There’s something a little predictable in its eastern European absurdist, psychoanalytical point of view, let alone in the typical anxieties of its middle-aged protagonist, who realises that his life hasn’t amounted to a great deal and who fantasises about ways of starting over again. But these are small complaints. It addresses a legitimate subject, and is assembled with complete confidence by an artist in command of his medium. That its vision becomes ever darker and that it ends particularly bleakly could, perhaps, stand as a parable for unsettling times, in both Europe and in the wider world.

“Shame” is released in the US (2 December), France (7 December), Sweden (6 January 2012), Belgium (11 January), the UK and Ireland (13 January), Australia and the Netherlands (9 February) and in Germany, Poland and Denmark (early March)

“Surviving Life (Theory and Practice)” opens at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and in other UK cities on 2 December

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