Monday, January 2, 2012

Shame

Grade: 83 (A-)

British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen made a memorable debut in 2008 with Hunger, a harrowing film about the IRA hunger strike of 1981 featuring a brilliant performance by Michael Fassbender. That film had a wonderful sense of stillness and focus on ritual that brought heightened attention from the audience; it was occasionally too showy for its own good, but McQueen was clearly a force to be reckoned with. The director’s follow-up, Shame, is an equally harrowing depiction of a sex-addict (Fassbender again) whose own rituals are spiraling out of control.

His name is Brandon. He is a successful yuppie in New York with a secret beneath his calm exterior: he has no control over his desire for sex. He picks up women in bars, on trains, on the street, or wherever else he can find them. When he can’t find them, he calls a prostitute. He spends his free time looking at pornography or doing live sex-chats, often at work. So far he’s hid it from his co-workers, but when he finds himself attracted to one (Nicole Beharie), he finds it difficult to manage this possible emotional connection while grappling with his compulsions. To make matters worse, his troubled lounge-singer sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives unannounced in his apartment; their relationship, clearly shaky, is even more complicated than it seems.

Let it be said that Shame more than earns its NC-17 rating: full-frontal nudity from Fassbender and Mulligan, among others, should be expected. The film is far from dirty, however. It isn’t even sexy. It’s an extremely uncomfortable film that focuses on Brandon’s nearly joyless existence. It isn’t a complete dirge of a film, but his passionless sex is deeply sad. The film is not, however, the corny message movie it could have been. It doesn’t have a lot of complexity to its core, and no doubt some of the later sequences involving the addiction go a little over the top, but as with Hunger, McQueen manages to avoid overt moralizing in order to focus on a portrait of a man torn apart by his dedication (this one a far less noble one).

If Shame has a slight edge over Hunger, it’s the emotional content at the film’s central relationship. Fassbender’s Brandon is a character without real purpose aside from his addiction, which doesn’t seem to give him much satisfaction. He avoids any real connections. His sister’s arrival is immediately uncomfortable for both of them. She’s had a difficult life and is emotionally needy, and he either can’t or refuses to provide her with any support. The two actors are among the very best working today, and they’re both in top form here as two deeply unhappy people. Mulligan does a near-180 from her famous An Education character to play a woman without a supportive background, with the “best” part of her life behind her, and with little to look forward to; she’s far more confrontational as well. Fassbender, meanwhile, is a man pulled from all sides: by his addiction, his sister, and his work.

Their scenes together are a series of gut-punches, with an emotional directness from McQueen. Any number of them would prove effective examples at the clarity of their relationship, from Mulligan’s arrival to one of McQueen’s much-lauded single takes, this one of a conversation they have on the couch. But perhaps the most affecting is one at a nightclub: Brandon arrives with a friend to watch Sissy sing. He is there only reluctantly. As she takes the stage, he looks all the more uncomfortable. McQueen cuts to a close-up on Mulligan’s face as she launches into a wistful version of “New York, New York”; he keeps the camera on her as she expresses as much with her sad-eyes as with the song. McQueen only cuts to Fassbender briefly during the song’s runtime, as a tear runs down his cheek. It isn’t just because her performance was beautiful; there’s a deep sense of loss, hollowness, and indeed, shame, in both of them, and he knows it.

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