Apr 11, 2012|
(UK) Directed by Steve McQueen. Starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale. Category III.
Hardly any film that contains graphic sex is as unsexy as “Shame;” hardly any director that has dealt with the subject of sex addiction is as uncompromising as Steve McQueen. Following his superb debut, “Hunger,” which chronicles the last days of IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands played by Michael Fassbender in a star-making turn, the British filmmaker’s sophomore feature is a similarly painful and visceral character study of one man’s self-destruction. With a sublime Fassbender again stripped bare, both literally and figuratively, in an awe-inspiring performance, “Shame” takes an unflinchingly hard look into a New York sex addict’s descent.
Fassbender plays Brandon, a 30-ish Manhanttanite with polite manners, good looks and a successful career, yet his life is a contradiction: in his high-rise bachelor pad, a hooker has left her earring on the nightstand; at his well-paying corporate job, he goes to the men’s room several times a day to masturbate; during night outings with his co-workers, he picks up beautiful strangers for one-night-stands. This is a troubled man consumed by an unspeakable addiction, a compulsive pursuit of sex that drives him into a relentless hunt for prey. He’s good at it, too. Endowed with a handsome face and a chiseled frame, the smooth charmer can notice the color of a woman’s eyes in even the briefest glance. In the wordless opening sequence, a pretty girl catches his attention in a subway train; he gives her a long stare so nakedly lustful that she’s both turned on and disturbed by such seduction.
Prostitutes, hookups, masturbation and pornography—they construct the routine of Brandon’s isolated life. But this carefully cultivated privacy is disrupted by the arrival of his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who shows up in his apartment unannounced for an indefinite stay. A lounge singer based in LA, she’s talkative, sloppy and morbidly needy; the polar opposite of Brandon’s taciturnity, tidiness and emotional detachment, but equally wayward. It’s obvious that the siblings have a shared dark past that has severely damaged them in different ways, but it’s unspecified, left to the viewer’s imagination. Her presence causes Brandon extreme annoyance, and at times ignites a frightening anger that is normally hidden under his suave façade. Trapped in a corner, he tries to form relationships with others, but all his attempts fail and his life quickly spirals towards destruction.
A former award-winning visual artist, McQueen (who co-wrote the screenplay with Abi Morgan) displays an obsession and natural gift in crafting long takes and close-ups. These beautiful and compelling wide-screen shots bear a confrontational intensity that leaves the characters as well as the audience nowhere to hide. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker, both worked in “Hunger,“ impeccably bring McQueen’s distinctive vision to life. In addition, a gloomy original score, often interposed by a string of Glenn Gould recordings, fittingly outlines the film’s harsh atmosphere. Most of the supporting actors have very limited lines and on-screen time, yet each is an important and convincing part of the story. James Badge Dale, as Brandon’s sleazeball of a boss, and Nicole Beharie, as a co-worker who Brandon tries to build an emotional connection with, particularly stand out.
None of this would have been possible, though, without Fassbender and Mulligan’s fearless and flawless portrayals of the broken siblings. The German-Irish actor gives it all physically and psychologically in a sympathetic and vulnerable performance that’s reminiscent of Marlon Brando in “Last Tango in Paris.” There’s no shortage of naked flesh, but the movie is far from an exploitation piece. Sex offers no pleasure to Brandon as he can only engage in the anonymous, empty flavor of it. It becomes increasingly unsatisfying, filling him with self-loathing and shame while sucking the soul and joy out of him. Going brilliantly against type, Mulligan is also on top form playing opposite Fassbender, and surprises us with her breathtaking vocals by singing “New York New York” in a five-minute set-piece. The classic song of hope and joy is sung here in a slow and simple rendition with heartbreaking longing and loneliness, and is one of the film’s best moments.
With admirable commitment and courage, the director and cast shine a light on a topic that has been long deemed a social taboo. Blunt, bold and raw, this phenomenal drama is an uneasy watch, but nevertheless a cinematic gem of humanity and artistry.