A dark comedy that originally aired on British TV, Dirty Filthy Love follows the once ambitious Mark (Michael Sheen) as he faces losing his wife, his job, and ultimately his mental health. We are introduced to Mark as he’s lying in bed unable to move, from his room, also his sanctuary from the uncontrollable world around him. He stares at the hand ticking on the alarm clock, and fixates on his foot hitting the floor as he gets off the bed. He is trapped and haunted by his fear, a slave to his compulsions.
Now released to an essentially no-frills DVD, Dirty Filthy Love focuses on Mark’s increasing difficulties. His inertia is a byproduct of his growing alienation from the normalcy of his former existence. Diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, coupled with increasing Tourette’s Syndrome symptoms, Mark tries desperately to repress his condition, all the while becoming more of a social outcast.
This last is reflected in the film by Mark’s relationships with women. As Mark’s wife, Stevie (Anastasia Griffith), pulls away from him, he becomes obsessed with her. He follows her to and from work, calls her incessantly, and even barks at her while watching her flirt with a man. When she confronts him, Mark is so overcome by his tics that he yelps, “Bitch! Bitch!” As reconciliation seems unlikely, Mark regresses into a shell of his former self, all neuroses and compulsions.
And yet, he finds salvation in the form of Charlotte (Shirley Henderson), a fellow OCD sufferer. She convinces him to attend her self-help group with other compulsives, including a woman who smells her fingers repeatedly, a man who can’t stop turning lights on and off, a woman who can’t enjoy sex because she’s so obsessed with her facial expressions upon reaching orgasm. “You thought you were the only one,” Charlotte says. In explaining his compulsions, Mark relays, “I always thought they were just habits. I’ve been this way since I was eight.” As Mark becomes more involved with the self-help group, we see glimpses of what we imagine his former self to be. Because he’s more accepted and “normal” within this group, he can be open and share his social problems with people. For the first time, we see hope in his condition. While he may never return to his former self, the film suggests here that, through therapy and friendships, he might break free of his fears and compulsions, if not forever, at least for a short while.
That’s not to say he doesn’t suffer setbacks. When Stevie “moves on,” he turns so difficult that Charlotte stops talking to him and his friends kick him out of their flat. Living alone, Mark slips further into his OCD. He covers his apartment floors with newspaper, won’t shave or cut his hair. He even attacks his best friend Nathan (Adrian Bower) on the street because he imagines Stevie is having an affair with him. This plot point seems unnecessary: it’s one thing to demonstrate that Mark’s ending will not be an entirely or stereotypically happy one, which is evident from the start. It’s another thing to make us bear witness to his misery for the film’s running time.
The film ends much like it begins. Mark’s condition doesn’t change: he’s still plagued with the same compulsions, still rendered immobile by his fears. The one consolation he finds is through a budding romance with Charlotte. She articulates her understanding when she confronts Stevie: “Why couldn’t you just listen to him?” Charlotte sees past Mark’s illness, and can even make jokes about it. “Nice tits,” he yelps at her during their first meeting. “Nice ass,” she responds. Charlotte takes joy in small triumphs. When she takes her group to the country and makes them hold their hands in muck for five minutes, they all have to fight the urge not to wash their hands immediately after. At the end of the trip, even though every one of them is still clinging to his or her compulsions, they are also happy, laughing at themselves and at one another. At long last, these people have found unconditional acceptance and in the case of Mark and Charlotte, some form of “real love.”