SXSW 2011: ‘Charlie Casanova’ highlights the alluring exterior of the Irish ruling class and the lunatics that lie beneath
Directed by Terry McMahon
Written by Terry McMahon
After the world premier of Charlie Casanova at SXSW, the director of the film, Terry McMahon, approached the stage for the Q&A and first thanked those of us there for sticking around, and then said he imagined half of us had hated the film. What’s more, he didn’t blame us for hating it if we did. “It wasn’t,” he said, “supposed to be easy to watch.”
It’s true. It’s difficult to “like” this film in the traditional sense partly because the main character, Charlie Barnum (Emmet Scanlan), is so despicable. There is no break from Charlie’s hatred, insanity, smugness. The beginning of the film jumps right into a voiceover from Charlie in which we get a completely one-sided introduction to him. Charlie thinks highly of himself and is unapologetic for both his thoughts and what will soon teeter over into actions.
Essentially, the story follows the unraveling of Charlie, who lives a ruling class life in Ireland (though he’ll never admit that it’s funded by a credit card). After running over a working-class nobody, Charlie uses a deck of cards to determine whether to get out or keep driving, which sets him on a reckless streak where he uses the cards to determine more and more of his actions. In this he finds freedom from society’s guidelines, and power in the ability to skirt responsibility for decisions that are no longer his to make.
While there’s no resting from the assault that is Charlie, the breath of fresh air here is in the acting, from everyone in the film. Emmet Scanlan as Charlie doesn’t miss a beat. When he’s playing the role of ruling class elite, dining with friends, he’s commanding, sophisticated, and verbose. And when he dips into his character’s crumbling, clown-like psychotic side, he’s frightening in a primal way. This is McMahan’s point. The film highlights the contrast between the smooth, alluring exterior of the Irish ruling class and the lunatics that lie beneath. While both sides are equally dangerous, the ruling class is able to blend into society in sharp suits, tame hair and shiny shoes. Scanlan demonstrates this point with potency.
But Charlie’s story wouldn’t work and Charlie’s character wouldn’t be convincing without his posse: his wife, his two close friends and their wives. While the gang is seduced by Charlie’s rants about the superiority of the ruling class compared to those blood-suckers on welfare, each character attempts to rub his or her humanity off on Charlie. At dinner his wife (played subtly and honestly by Ruth McIntyre) buries her face intimately in his shoulder, embarrassed when he won’t shut up. On a rooftop, his best friend confesses unapologetically and foolishly that he loves his wife (who seems to have fallen out of love with him). By this time in the film we know Charlie well enough that we can sense his disgust for his friend’s weakness.
The film tows its viewers through sometimes baffling sex acts by sad women, some rolling Irish accents, and cyclical language that is intended to escape you, only to reward you with clarity. All of Charlie’s “smoke and mirrors” talk, as McMahan calls it, comes to a head the night that drunken Charlie performs at a dark, underground comedy club. It’s here that Charlie faces the population he so vehemently despises, and it’s here that the film presses go and you’re along for the ride whether you want to be or not.
While Charlie Casanova may touch a particularly raw bone with Irish viewers, watch closely and you’ll find a familiar face staring back. Charlie is, in the end, a dangerous chameleon, a symbol of hatred, and that’s something that you’ll find worked into the fabric of any society in any part of the world.
The film was not an easy one to get made. From its very conception, the odds, both financial and politically, were stacked against Charlie. But, McMahan found himself, late one night, at a breaking point, and, determined to get the film off the ground, he posted to Facebook a proposition worded more in the form of a dare, for help with the whirl wind production of his “no budget feature, ‘Charlie Casanova’ a provocatively dark satire.” One Facebook comment snowballed into over 100, and within hours, he had a crew ready to go and within two weeks, the thing was shot.
McMahan is on a roll, with his directorial debut representing many ‘firsts:’ first Irish film to be accepted into the Narrative Feature competition at SXSW, potentially the first film to be entirely conceived on Facebook, first film to explore Irish politics in a way that reveals the danger in the ruling class mentality. Sound on Sight got to sit down with the director and pick his brain a little more about what is behind Charlie Barnum and, perhaps more interesting, what motivates McMahan himself. Check it out later this week.
– Alice Gray