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Shame

April 18, 2012

Minor spoilers throughout.

The acclaimed British visual artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen followed up his feature film debut Hunger (2008) with last year’s Shame, which went on limited U.S. theatrical release in December following a rather minor and silly controversy surrounding the film being given an NC-17 rating by the Motion Picture Association of America (see here). Following their prior collaboration on Hunger, McQueen once again put Michel Fassbender in the central role (in what can be seen as something of a companion piece to that earlier film), alongside solid support from Carey Mulligan. Despite widespread critical praise and a number of accolades, Fassbender was snubbed for an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his brilliant portrayal of an angst-ridden, sex-addict yuppie which led writer/director McQueen to later remark, “In America they’re too scared of sex, that’s why he wasn’t nominated.” Although the controversy surrounding the subject matter and supposedly explicit content of the film no doubt contributed to generating much-needed publicity for a small film commercially endangered by the MPAA’s decision to rate it an NC-17, and therefore helped make it profitable, this same controversy actually gets in the way of Shame to some degree. It’s a distraction that, arguably, risks provoking unnecessary hype and ill-fitting sensationalism unrelated to the true intentions of the film.

Fassbender plays Brandon, a handsome, non-satirical yuppie working in an unspecified corporate job in New York. Despite his outward appearance of success and comfort, Brandon is an empty, tortured man engulfed in compulsive sexual misadventures involving prostitutes, casual encounters, sex chat rooms, masturbating in the gents’ bathroom at work, and a thoroughly silly amount of pornography. His troubled younger sister, Sissy (Mulligan), a struggling singer with no fixed abode, turns up to stay in his apartment unexpectedly and it is not long before her presence and her destructive behaviour confront Brandon with the reality of his own damaged life and the personal hell he has fashioned for himself.

Will tap that ass, yes.

As with Hunger, McQueen exercises deft and impressive technique with Shame, employing long static takes and a stunning tracking shot of Brandon jogging in New York at night to tremendous effect. The opening montage depicting an overview of Brandon’s pathology and behaviour includes the powerful train scene presented in previews (a forcefully flirtatious exchange that eventually becomes a desperate pursuit), though here edited together smoothly with shots of Brandon receiving and paying prostitutes, having an intense hand shandy whilst showering, and strolling naked in his apartment whilst pointedly ignoring his sister pleading for attention on his answering machine. Later, in what is the climactic moment of the film, another montage presented in a disjointed chronology shows the trapped man wallowing in his self-hatred by inviting more degradation and even violence upon himself, insinuating he wishes to hasten his own destruction amidst the disgust and despair he has been forced to confront. It’s all beautifully done and thoroughly engaging, with the cinematography of Sean Bobbit (who also collaborated on Hunger) bringing a cold, foreboding aesthetic to the film and its timeless surroundings of that most cinematic of cities, New York. Michael Fassbender is immensely convincing here, seamlessly transitioning from an upright, handsome professional to a haggard, fragmented man awash in the pain of his imprisonment. It’s an unsettling role reflecting what the filmmakers assert is an as-yet largely unacknowledged modern affliction, i.e. the human soul atomized by the unrelenting pornucopia of the present. The veracity of Fassbender’s (and Mulligan’s) performance manages to keep the character(s) sympathetic throughout; Brandon’s haunted, suffering expressions and physicality marking him as pitiable rather than despicable. Even witnessing his anger and attempts at cruelty it is clear they are but manifestations of his own self-loathing and wretchedness.

Where the film perhaps stumbles ever-so-slightly is in how quickly and totally it establishes the sex-addict character of Brandon and his cold life bereft of intimacy. Shame does this very well early on, but by the third act it leaves the film with little to do or offer the audience that doesn’t appear rather obvious or telegraphed (especially regarding the fate of Sissy). Instead of a climactic finale or any kind of resolution to the proceedings, what is left is an extended coda that reprises much of what is already known albeit with increased anguish. It’s beautifully executed and played with aplomb but perhaps lacks the impact intended. The reason for this may lie in the choice of subject matter that McQueen chose to tackle, modern sex-addiction, and the manner in which the character study is executed. The taught focus on the subject imposes limits on what can be thrown into this movie; there are no murder mysteries, twists, quirky sub-plots or other Macguffins to hurtle things along to a dazzling finale. Of course, this is to the credit of the maturity and frank intent of the film itself but, at the same time, it does result in the impression that, however stylishly and well executed Shame is, there isn’t quite enough to say here. That could also be a result of deliberate choices on the part of McQueen who conceals much of the central characters’ past from the viewer and keeps the exposition to a minimum. Sissy’s sorrowful voice on an answering machine toward the end of the film gives only the briefest of hints as to the cause of their behavior when she says “We’re not bad people, Brandon, we just come from a bad place” but what this bad place is, we can only speculate. It could be sexual abuse, or some kind of incestuous dalliance in their youth (and certainly there are a few hints toward the latter), but again it seems the filmmakers want to push the audience away from lurid, over-simplified explanations as to the motivation there. You’re simply not supposed to know.

Boo hoo - The Abundant Pussy Blues

There is much to admire in Shame, particularly the manner in which the central subject is handled as a painful character study rather than the more expected narrative of satirical savagery or overwrought indictment. The controversy surrounding the content of the film, however, is rather undeserved. Granted, I may have a very different idea of what constitutes shocking imagery than many casual cinemagoers (not trying to sound edgy and cool but let’s face it, I evangelized The Human Centipede), but Shame is neither gratuitous nor intended to titillate. It seems intent, instead, on making people uncomfortable by confronting its audience with un-erotic sex acts conveying despair, agony and a kind of spiritual destitution. Unfortunately, the grubby connotations attached to the NC-17 rating in the United States mean that many people might approach Shame expecting something very different. This isn’t the erotic thriller trash of the early 90s, or even one of those gentle, explicitly sexual art films that crop up every now and then but more a beautifully composed film about human suffering that happens to contain a strongly sexual element at its centre. Although not perfect, Shame is still one of the best films of 2011 and has much to offer in the way of a moving exploration of wounded humanity.

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