Shame (2011, Steve McQueen)
A movie about sex. What comes to mind when presented with such a topic? Often, the gut responses are pornographic films. Those movies are definitely about sex, even though the physical act is treated as gratuitous and the purpose of which is strictly immediate self-satisfaction, or stimulation, for the viewer. Sex, the act and everything about it from genitalia, foreplay, to positions is also the butt of jokes in comedies. The American Pie movies immediately spring to mind or the countless other so-called raunchy comedies. Horror films also depict sexual intercourse in gratuitous ways. There are probably not enough films that treat the topic in a serious, honest manner. They do indeed exist, but the mere fact that raunchy comedies, slasher and pornography flicks are a dime a dozen is indicative of how the issue of sex is treated in film today. Now, how about not only treating sex seriously, but more specifically as a problem, a totally uncontrollable one? Englishmen Steve McQueen returns two years after the unforgettable Hunger with Shame,
Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, the successful, respected office employee of an undisclosed company operating in downtown Manhattan. He lives in a modern, sparsely decorated condo in the city, goes out with friends and colleagues sometimes in the evening for drinks and relaxation. A cursory glance at this man’s life might not sound the alarm for any specific reason, although one might wonder: ‘How is it that he remains single?’ The answer lies deep beneath all the charm and affable mannerisms, and would definitely be a cause for concern if anybody knew about it. Brandon’s ‘issue’ is that he must continuously give in to his insatiable thirst for sexual intercourse. Watching pornography on the internet, video chatting with strippers, jacking off in the shower, banging beautiful women on the side of the road, everything is fair game provided he gets to temporarily calm his urges. Temporarily is a key word, for soon enough there is a part of him, one that he might not even fully understand, which preys on this shameful weakness of his. Still, life goes on without any genuine concerns until the evening his sister Sissy (Carrey Mulligan), with whom he has a complicated relationship, intrudes upon his life. A lounge singer, Sissy has not met the same professional success as her older brother and appears to be a loose cannon when it comes to emotional attachment. Can Brandon keep his complicated private life a secret for much longer?
Director Steve McQueen, who impressed a whole lot of people with his debut Hunger, solidifies his status as an auteur with Shame. As a director, he always has a very purposeful way of going about telling his stories, with his methodology finding its strength in embracing film as a visual medium, much like a director we discussed about earlier in the festival, Béla Tarr. It is quite amazing to realize that the man has only just directed his second film, yet unquestionably possess a command of the visual and audio aspects of the medium. A camera resting on Fassbender’s face as he gazes upon a pretty women sitting across from him in a subway cart, Sissy’s emotionally charged performance at a swanky lounge as she sings ‘New York, New York.’, the dolly shot of Brandon jogging into the Manhattan night while his boss and Sissy have sex in his condo, the behind the couch shot of the siblings as they at long last confront each other with their pent up emotions... McQueen effortlessly finds unique ways of shooting his scenes without ever falling into the precarious trap of making specific shots ‘call attention to themselves.’
Despite what intense and confusing feelings Brandon experiences from the moment Sissy walks back into his life, the director keeps things oddly clinical. That is not to say that Shame has no soul, for it does in its most important scenes, but the film certainly does not cry out for audiences to get very emotionally involved in the film, which, in a way, is the best manner to tell the story. Much of what transpires is an observational study Brandon, his behavioural problems and the ways he goes about falling prey to his habits. There are some funny bits when he goes out drinking with friends, but by and large the film seems as though it makes some efforts at distancing Brandon from the viewer. We get to know him rather well by the end, yet many would be hard pressed to truly express any genuine sympathy for the character. McQueen finds ways to circumvent the potential problem of making the film too cold by really upping the ante of Brandon’s journey in the second half of the film. He does make a solid attempt at forming a relationship with a beautiful co-worker named Marianne (Nicole Beharie). Their first date is somewhat difficult given how inexperienced Brandon is in the art of forming bonds, but he persists. The reality of his problem hits him (and Marianne) in full force when they go for their first love making session. Not sex, but love making. What results shan’t be revealed here, but the entire sequence is utterly spectacular and even touching in a really bizarre way. Finally, following an argument with Sissy during which she attacks him verbally about his problem, Brandon has a night on the town, no friends, in one of the most intense, non-stimulating sex-capades this reviewer has ever seen depicted on film. That section of the movie is absolutely jaw-dropping in how awkwardly successful Brandon’s night is. Therein lies yet another of the director’s tricks: understanding that the issue of sex is meant to be problematic in Brandon’s case. For a movie that is full of it, Shame is surprising unsexy.
Not much of the film would work as well as it does without the incredible presence of leading man Michael Fassbender. In only a few years, his star has risen remarkably high in the industry. From the family friendly A Bear Named Winnie earlier in the decade to playing in a Tarantino film, an X-Men film, an Roman centurion for Neil Marshall and now in one of the year’s most controversial and mesmerizing films. This is a rare of an actor who, based on his work over the last 5-6 years, can seemingly do no wrong. It is almost scary how good he is, commanding the screen every time the camera generously rests on him. The scene mentioned earlier in which his character Brandon shares a desirable gaze with a woman in the subway is a telling one. He says nothing at all with words, but says everything with his eyes and subtle facial gestures. His performance in Shame is powerful for both the incredible charm and vulnerability it reveals in the character. In fact, the work is so good it makes one forget that Carry Mulligan is even in the movie, and she is no slouch when it comes to acting, far from it in fact. Mulligan is very, very good here, make no mistake, but this is Fassbender’s film, through and through.
Word has it that despite its strong subject matter, Shame will be getting a theatrical release. It does not take a genius to guess that this eventual release will be limited, very much so. If the people reading this like taking some chances with their movies or are admirers of Fassbender and Hunger, then there is no point even debating whether you should see this or not. That being said, the film is not for everybody and arguably not for most people, so be warned.