Monday 20 September 2010

Dirty Filthy Love (2004)

It's unfortunately very rare to see a responsibly-made, informative and entertaining film about mental illness. Dirty Filthy Love, which covers obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and Tourette's Syndrome, is just that: educational without sacrificing narrative, touching without sacrificing realism.

Mark's (Michael Sheen) life is falling apart. He just lost his job at a prominent London architecture firm and his wife (Anastasia Griffith) has filed for separation. Worse still, he seems to live in a prison of irrational tics and ostracizing habits: every day is an uphill battle with the stairs, chairs, shaving, the metro, and other people. When Mark asks his (NHS?!!) psychiatrist (John O'Mahony?) for help, the psychiatrist tells him again that it's just "clinical depression", and surely if he ups his anti-depressant dosage, he'll be fine. Mark knows that it isn't depression, he knows that the drugs aren't working, but he's not quite sure what it could be either: at the moment, he's narrowed it down to a brain tumor, meningitis or early-onset senility.

That is, of course, until Mark meets Charlotte (Shirley Henderson, "Moaning Myrtle" from the Harry Potter series) - a fellow OCD sufferer and the Beatrice to his Dante as she leads him out of the Inferno. And it is a pretty harrowing inferno indeed - be prepared for some shockingly awful stuff as Mark crashes down to the bottom.

OCD is one of those things that isn't normally presented realistically; the cinematic shorthand we have for OCD is Jack Nicholson dancing over pavement cracks in the dreamy fairy tale that is As Good As It Gets, or Tony Shalhoub's latex-glove wearing detective in Monk. That is, "pop OCD" is all about washing your hands repeatedly and being a sort of old-fashioned, Woody Alleny type of quirky urban neuroticism. It's about as helpful a representation as the "hysteria" label that women would get slapped with on their foreheads back in the day. In other words, not very helpful and basically made-up.

Dirty Filthy Love, thankfully, keeps it real. It represents. Mark's fears, compulsions and tics aren't cute and filmi - they're awkward, painful and, often, baffling. When Mark hits bottom, it's not rock star glamorous, it's ugly and uncomfortable to watch. Tragically, Mark is fully aware that he is suffering from some deep problem, but he has a terrible time pinpointing what, exactly, is wrong - a characteristic of OCD. In the sea of anxiety that Mark navigates every day, everything seems threatening. And Mark's "cure" isn't a miracle drug or a cuckoo's nest (sorry, Jack) or love (sorry, Jack) - it's not even a cure at all, but more of a management technique. Shout out for cognitive behavioral therapy!

Michael Sheen is great in these sort of modern edutainment roles, what with his Tony Blair looks and Every(British)man versatility - so we don't know why he spends his time taking loony bit parts in big-budget fantasies (Tron, Alice in Wonderland), or taking big parts in morally dodgy B-films (Beautiful Boy, Unthinkable). As a friend of ours said, Michael Sheen should be playing BP's Tony Hayward (seriously, they're identical) or Lancelot or some other modern British docudrama thing. Or a Zadie Smith film adaptation.


eliza bennet said...

I think The Aviator was not a bad example of OCD in cinema. It was certainly not pop and it was not pretty in anyway.

I can't seem to like Martin Sheen but he sure may be at home in a Zadie Smith novel (oh God he was awful in one of those underworld films and he was not a good acting match for Helen the The Queen)

scott said...

I'm not sure he would be that comfortable in a Zadie Smith adaptation. Unless it was a *bad* Zadie Smith adaptation with the Briterati all present and correct.

Michael Sheen is a slippery bugger, though: you get the impression he's just too talented. The problem of being able to do anything is that nothing fits.

I'm sure he will find his defining role in something totally unexpected; something absurdly limiting - a steampunk serial that only runs for half a season, but lets him be Charismatic Evil Genius, say, or as a voice talent in a Pixar movie that let's him be All Thumbs Sincerity.

a ppcc representative said...

eliza bennet - I guess I meant OCD that HASN'T become a Howard Hughes-level of extremity. In fact, in this film, I really preferred the earlier scenes that showed OCD invisibly eating away at Sheen's life. It was a realistic portrayal of something that is much more common, I think. OMG YES UNDERWORLD WAS SO BAD.

scott - How very insightful re: Michael Sheen finally getting the role he was born for. A steampunk TV show would obviously kill the PPCC dead with joy, but honestly ANYTHING that fully displays his powers would be great. At the moment, I feel like the best we've got is The Damned United (which is admittedly pretty damned great).