Thursday, December 1, 2011

Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)

Michael Fassbender only just exploded on the international scene a few years ago, but to see him in Shame, one half expects him to keel over any second. After coming to everyone's attention as the physically emaciated IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen's debut Hunger, Fassbender re-teams with the director to play a spiritually hollowed figure. The soullessness of sex addict Brandon pokes through the actor's buff frame, turning his pale flesh gray, his lined face turned skeletal with self-consuming lust. It is a deeply unsettling performance, one that uses Fassbender's attractive physicality and body language against itself to make every seductive pose more predatory than smoldering.

McQueen and editor Joe Walker establish the prison Brandon has erected around himself with a circular opening defined by the harsh sounds of a light switch turned on after nights of carnal pleasures, the disgusted whipping back of blinds to let in the light of the world from which Brandon hides, and the grinding subway train where he scopes out potential conquests on his way to work. As he hungrily gazes upon a married woman who struggles vainly against his devilish spell, the audience sees Brandon's routine of sex, be it hiring prostitutes, watching Internet porn or masturbating at work. So effective is the opening that mere wisps of recurring images—such as the bathroom door at work—instantly trigger graphic memories. But that closed-loop cutting only locks the film itself into the icy bourgeois surroundings of its protagonist, allowing McQueen to show off without having to do anything with his technical skill.

In no time, the visual suggestions stack up with such overbearing insistence that McQueen undermines his atmosphere of necrosis with "Get it, folks?" desperation. A street signal bent out of shape flashes "walk" as Brandon jogs in place, turning to the red hand as he resumes his run. After picking up the businesswoman his married boss pathetically hit on at a bar, the two screw against a concrete wall with "Fuck" scrawled above them. Motifs of Brandon's yuppie trappings fill the gaps, especially his laptop, which he seems to own solely to download porn and live chat with stripteasers. Having so quickly set up his protagonist, his style and his mood with the opening sequence, McQueen resorts to repeating himself ad nauseam, his exacting direction emphasizing only his own skill, never the inner complexity of a character. I've not seen the director's Hunger, but I can only pray it does not browbeat its audience into an admiration of its visual prowess as Shame does.

The emphatic visuals push the film's wafer thin thematic content with equal assertion. Brandon's sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), shows up (to Brandon's extreme discomfort), eliciting strong but cheap hints of incestuous attraction. The siblings have more than one confrontation where one is nude, and the two clearly struggle with conflicted feelings for each other. To get out his feelings, Brandon tries to clean up his act, even attempting a date with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie), where the smooth bedder of women suddenly resembles an acne-scarred sophomore as he clumsily handles an actual date with conversation. And if you couldn't piece together that Brandon's sex addiction closes him off from real relationships, don't worry: you'll get plenty of subsequent scenes of punishing prostitute use to make sure we all haven't forgotten the effects of both normalcy and Sissy have on Brandon.

Nothing, though, can beat the arduous singing of "New York, New York," performed at a snail's crawl in full, clearly an attempt to pervert the musical advertisement of the city into something that reflects its seedy underbelly (certainly the line, "I wanna wake up in the city that doesn't sleep" has never been crooned with more irony). But this interminable scene merely sounds like someone messing with the turntable speed, and the embarrassing use of close-ups are as flat as the actual music. Self-indulgence is not a term I like to employ, given its overuse for practically any kind of artistic ambition, but rarely have I been so tempted to use it for this scene.

Throughout, Fassbender and Mulligan try their best to put some life into this drab series of surface textures. Mulligan plays Sissy with a bestial, unfocused longing that runs counter to her typical innocent waif image. Typically a great listener, Mulligan here portrays someone less capable of meaningful connection and engagement than even her solipsistic brother, for she lacks even the biological focus that diverts Brandon's hangups into an obsession. Sissy is a wretchedly underwritten character, but Mulligan makes up for this by making Sissy into a force of uninhibited, directionless dependence. So erratic and untamable is she that Fassbender's taut performance tears at the seams in dealing with her. As Brandon fights against his carnal desires and gets ever more entangled with Sissy and the vague but clearly unwelcome shared past she brings, Fassbender turns even more ghoulish. A scene late in the film of Brandon eerily, hungrily hitting on a taken woman casts him in sickly lighting that makes his erotic presence as repellent as it is magnetic. Fassbender plays the scene as if he has transcended any hint of pleasure in sex, a truly horrific snapshot of the addiction itself wearing Brandon as a skin.

Sadly, McQueen subsequently trades this genuine moment of horror for an extended series of climactic sorrows that neatly package shocks of various stripes drowned in Harry Escott's overwhelming score. So meaningless and emptily arty are these sequences that you could drop that black-and-white, slow-mo child death from the start of Antichrist in the middle of them and not raise a fuss. But for all the power of both Fassbender's and Mulligan's performances, McQueen's script has so routinely robbed them of any depth that his parade of woes never feels as harrowing as it thinks it is. And when the director concludes his film full-circle with a hint of ambiguity, he'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who, after all the talk of the nudity wears off, really cares what happens next.


  1. oh no sorry you didn't like it! i'm checking it out tomorrow.

  2. Fassbender's brave portrayal is the only reason to see this confused picture, which is often as scattered and unfocused as its protagonist. The additional character of the equally messed-up sister just adds a layer to the plot that doesn't ring true for me. The story would be more compelling if we just followed Fassbender as he stalked his sexual prey down the dark, mean streets of NYC without having to suggest that a dysfunctional family made him do it. Of course, he has to get his comeuppance by getting beaten up, just as bad-boy Laurence Harvey did in Room at the Top, oh so many years ago. And the sex has to get ugly so that he can be an example for us all of where all this depravity will lead. The depiction of his ultimate degradation - gay sex! - is as screamingly archaic as the gay bar sequence in Preminger's Advise and Consent, oh so many years ago. For all its casual nudity and soft-core sex, this picture is as old fashioned as a high school training film about abstinence.