Co-written an directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, 2008)
With Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan
Deeply psychological, Shame is an interesting take on inner turmoil, personality disorder, and a sexual dysfunction that only the world of pornography can appease. Brandon escapes into the void of immediate sexual gratification until he acknowledges something — a family bond he has rejected until now — that jars him out of his state of denial.
— We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.
And it’s true. Brandon is not a bad person. He just doesn’t feel anything.
How many of us know men who can shift the gears but can’t drive? A man who can lay a woman down but is incapable of intimacy?
Basically Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is one of those. He masturbates every day and his computer is loaded with pornography. He has a good job and a nice apartment in a Manhattan high-rise, but doesn’t go out, nor does he seek relationships with women, other than for a quick fix. In the one date we see him on, with a co-worker, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), who is newly separated, he says that he doesn’t believe in marriage. Staying with one person for one’s whole life is irrational, he claims. Marianne wants a relationship. But the longest Brandon’s ever had was 4 months.
Brandon takes it to the next level with Marianne, but even the (very realistic) pre-game action doesn’t get a rise out of him. Brandon is demolished. This is a humiliating, failed attempt at entering into a “real” relationship. He’s tried hard to change his ways and include some level of feeling into his sexuality, but he realizes he can’t do it.
Meanwhile, his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up again and is already taking too much space. She is literally in his apartment (she has the key) and Chic’s vintage I Want Your Love is playing in a loop. There’s no mistake as to the choice of songs for the soundtrack. Sissy’s a singer just trying to pay the rent but what she really wants is love. She desperately wants love. She’s caught in a spiral of co-dependence and one-night stands and her brother’s attention is for her a last bastion of survival. She reaches out to him incessantly, but he ignores her. And although her behaviour reflects symptoms just like his own, he finds her repulsive.
In one explosive, very well directed scene, shot from behind Brandon and Sissy sitting on the couch in his apartment, he confronts his sister on her “loose” conduct. She responds by saying that where sex is concerned, a pervert like him has no lessons to teach her.
It is painfully reminiscent of so many scenes we have played in ourselves or witnessed others playing, where one will call the significant other on a fault and the other will put the finger on a terrifying weakness. Here, the extremely well written dialog rips their sores wide open. He wants her to leave so he can be alone. She reminds him that if she does she’ll never see him again. Because she knows he’ll disappear yet again, leaving her agonizing for his presence all over again. “I’m not responsible for you! — Yes you are! We’re family, we’re meant to look out for eachother!” The desperation of both is palpable, albeit pulling in different directions. The tragedy is perfectly orchestrated, drawing its intensity from real life.
After the crushing setback with Marianne, Brandon goes on a binge, much like an alcoholic or drug addict would, and screws everyone he can find in one night. Then something happens that makes him connect the dots, and the film takes on a cataclysmic climax. With the very last frame, McQueen cleverly leaves the viewer to conclude what Brandon chooses to do with his life.
Without ever delving into whatever past Brandon and Sissy may have lived through as siblings, Shame is a captivating, introspective film that rings true all the way through. Unlike the recent Take Shelter which tries to take us into the chasm of paranoid schizophrenia but which, in this writer’s view, falls short, or even The Tree of Life for its premise based on the effect of dramatic events on a family, Shame is closer to Enter The Void, about a brother and sister in a symbiotic relationship after a shared childhood trauma. Billed as an “erotic thriller” reminiscent of Midnight Cowboy and Last Tango by some, Shame remains darker than it is erotic, since sex is devoid of affect.
Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan are both brilliant in conveying the intensity of their common desire, as it translates into deviant and self-destructive behaviour, riddled by shame. Throughout the film, Fassbender is in complete control of his character, but it is near the end that we fully understand how well he deserves the acclaim he has received thus far (Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival, Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor).
Perhaps most important of all, however, beyond the somber introspection, McQueen’s film is a resounding manifesto against pornography, because it is depicted as fostering a devastating and dehumanizing drug-like obsession which numbs the senses and renders relationships, the foundation of humanity, unnecessary or inaccessible. For that alone, the scenario should get an Oscar nod too.
* It should be noted that the choice of full frontal nudity and borderline pornographic content marks the courage of the filmmaker and cast, but also results in a NC-17 rating (no children under 17 allowed) and restricted screenings in the US.
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