Shame

Day after day, more of the same

Steve McQueen’s Shame is rated NC-17, which I suspect has contributed to its absence at the Academy Awards this year.  Additionally, Michael Fassbender, who has won several awards for his role as Brandon Sullivan – including the coveted Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival – has been omitted (along with the much-deserving Michael Shannon) from the Best Actor category.  To paraphrase Roger Ebert, it seems the Academy is okay with Nazis (Christoph Waltz’s Supporting Actor win for Inglourious Basterds) but not with “masturbators.”

Surely we can attribute the rating to the film’s nudity, but I find myself wondering if a film involving a lead female character with as many nude scenes as Michael Fassbender receives here would have been a hard R.  It seems to me that society at large is comfortable with the female form, at least as far as objectification and (to a lesser extent) admiration, and in ways, it’s always been – just look at those ancient statues and age-old paintings in every art gallery and museum, created by the great sexists of every age, which depict women sitting and reading half-naked, combing their hair in the nude, flashing impossibly unrealistic breasts.  Men, though.  When there’s a naked man in the room, regardless of how much exercise he does, there’s always something that no one wants to talk about – those unsightly lumps of flesh swaying to and fro, that shrub of uncontrolled hair.  At some point, every man must pray that women never realize how ugly we are (and I mean this to be funny; it’s nothing compared with what women have had to deal with due to the expectations set forth by their artistic depictions throughout history).

Shame follows Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender), a loner with a nice apartment and a cushy job that not only allows him to slink away without his coworkers noticing, but apparently provides him with enough disposable income to be able to throw a perfectly functional laptop into a plastic bag and leave it for the trash collectors.  By night, Brandon prowls Manhattan in search of anything – or anyone – who can satisfy his ardent sexual appetite.  I hesitate to call him a “sex addict,” however, which seems to be the buzz phrase for this movie, because that’s a medical term (which at the very least would require Brandon to identify a problem and seek help), and the story does not revolve around (nor even hint at) his desires to stop.

Instead, the film seeks to dig into Brandon’s lifestyle as a whole and see what stimuli will affect it, specifically after the appearance of Brandon’s wayward sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan).  In this way, the film follows a standard Rat-in-the-cage model – that is to say, planting a character and a rat in a cage together and forcing them to square off, which can lead to a number of conclusions: 1) one kills the other; 2) they kill each other; 3) they become friends and leave the cage together; and so on.  In this film, we bear witness to several conflicts that sum up the film’s drama, the most prominent of which are Brandon vs. Sissy and Brandon vs. Himself.  Once Sissy comes to town, begging Brandon to let her stay in his apartment while she performs singing gigs in the city, she paints him into a corner.  All of a sudden, his apartment doesn’t seem so big.  In addition, his lecherous boss (James Badge Dale) takes a superficial interest in her, which introduces a subconflict: Brandon vs. his boss.  In his dealings with every person and situation forced upon him, we sense that the overarching interior conflict is Brandon vs. Intimacy, exemplified in two chief ways: Brandon finds pleasure and release in sexual encounters with strangers, as well as in his nightly perusal of internet porn, but avoids talking to his sister, who seeks a meaningful personal relationship with him, at all costs.  They are one another’s only family.  Later, when he attempts to sleep with a coworker who displays a real emotional connection with him, he’s unable to perform.

Michael Fassbender gives his bravest, most honest performance since McQueen’s Hunger and Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, bearing not only his body, but the raw essence of his character.  Carey Mulligan bears a nearly equal burden in Sissy, breaking her self-described “staunch feminism” concerning nude scenes, and singing her heart out in a heart-squeezing scene involving a somber rendition of “New York, New York.”  The relationship between Brandon and Sissy is at the story’s core, and although we are never allowed to know what happened in their childhoods to create the dynamic they have now (they don’t budge at seeing each other naked, they have stark reactions to the other’s touch, Brandon cries when he hears her singing, etc), we push for them, hoping their respective imperfections can somehow mesh, somehow stop getting in the way of what could be the one healthy relationship either of them has.  What we do know is that they both have a history of self-abuse: Brandon’s sex life has become more function than fun, his penance for something we never learn about, and by his facial expressions during the final few orgasms he has in the film, we get the feeling that he’s no longer enjoying himself (has he ever?).  Sissy’s problems are more subtle.  As Brandon’s boss flirts with her, he touches her wrist and expresses surprise.  We don’t see what he sees, but Sissy’s reaction – “I was bored when I was younger” – gives away multitudes.  This scene, coupled with the fact that she was wearing a hospital bracelet when she showed up at Brandon’s place, brilliantly foreshadows what will be the story’s major turning point.

Perhaps the nature of Brandon’s addiction doesn’t matter.  An addiction to bodies and bodily functions rather than a drug, however, serves the underlying themes better: we get the sense that Brandon doesn’t even consider himself worthy of caring for another human being, and in the end, he is presented with two major decisions, giving him the chance to patch some things up, and perhaps more importantly, acknowledge that he himself had a problem in the first place.

You can count this film’s scenes on three hands.  The best ones are nearly endless, sticking with one shot (static, tracking, and otherwise) for minutes at a time, neither cheating the characters nor the audience of a single moment, a single change in facial expression, a single tear.  Signs on the subway often ask what we’re asking (or what we wish the characters would ask).  Shame is a film that shakes the basic film storytelling formula in that it does not prepare itself for any reasonable conclusion, and therefore does not reach much of one.  It does, however, present a conclusion, and if there was ever a movie in which the phrase “presentation is everything” applied, this was the one.

Shame (2011); written by Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen; directed by Steve McQueen; starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.

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1 Comment

  1. […] but I’m not sure I could see it again (I had similar feelings about the adeptly-constructed Shame, also starring Fassbender).  All the wrong people are killed, and not ironically.  Death scenes […]


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