Shame (2011)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Steve McQueen

By Marilyn Ferdinand

British director Steve McQueen seems drawn to examine human beings in extremis. His debut film Hunger (2008) deals with a subject about as out there as they come—the hunger strike unto death of Bobby Sands of the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Maze Prison, Belfast. The deep commitment of Sands and his fellow hunger strikers to protest their treatment as criminals instead of as political prisoners and keep alive the question of Irish independence and reclamation of the counties of Northern Ireland into the whole of Ireland offers an extreme reaction to an intolerable situation for them.

With his second feature, Shame, McQueen turns his focus to another Irishman, Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender, who played Bobby Sands in Hunger), whose extreme reaction to an internal pain the film never reveals is a severe sex addiction. Brandon, who lives in New York City, works for a company, perhaps an ad agency, where high-concept talk, client-landing, and young-turk partying are daily occurrences. However, it appears that he spends a lot of his work day consuming Internet porn and masturbating in a bathroom stall. He continues with same at home and adds visits from prostitutes, barroom pick-ups, and street cruising to the mix. Aside from listening to vinyl records or running, we don’t observe him doing much of anything not related to his obsession.

Two potential problems arise. Brandon’s company has detected Internet porn use at his IP address and confiscates his computer to wipe the filth and investigate how it got there, and Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a needy, suicidal cabaret singer whom Brandon has been avoiding for years, shows up looking for a place to stay. We overhear Sissy pleading with a lover on the phone; she hasn’t divorced emotional from physical intimacy the way Brandon has, and in fact, makes more of it than it is. So, it seems that Sissy’s role is to challenge her brother’s numbness with her neediness. That she’s willing to slit her wrists to get it doesn’t really offer a positive incentive, but nonetheless, Brandon makes a bid to change his ways, tossing out his entire porn collection and even his laptop. Given the enormity of Brandon’s addiction—almost the entire film comprises his sexual activities—it isn’t likely that either bump in the road will set him on a new course, but there is always a chance. He tries and quickly fails to start a relationship with coworker Marianne (Nicole Beharie), the only woman he can’t seem to have sex with, and a second chance at a sexual encounter he ran after near the beginning of the film is the cliffhanger with which McQueen ends his film.

With no real plot and no big reveal about Brandon and Sissy’s past, what Shame offers is a portrait of a sex addict. The very first image of the film is startlingly brilliant—Fassbender lying naked on his back, a blue sheet covering his pelvis, his hand resting low on his stomach as though he either just finished or is getting ready to masturbate. But he lays there in utter stillness, his eyes wide open and blank. I questioned out loud whether he might be dead until a small eye movement broke the spell. The image is as erotic and frightening as anything Caravaggio might have painted, and it perfectly sets the tone for a film in which the “little death” of orgasm seems a longing for true annihilation.

I found the rituals of anonymous sex interesting, though certainly not unique in my film-going experience. A prostitute (MariAnge Ramirez) comes to Brandon’s apartment and counts out the cash he gives her, ending with a satisfied “OK.” When she starts to undress, he tells her to go slow as he watches. We see the same almost expression-free face in this encounter as we do when he is looking at porn on his computer. It’s just something he does, like checking his Facebook page or e-mail. I was also fascinated by Brandon the quiet predator. Early in the film, he locks eyes with a married woman (Lucy Walters) on the subway; she is clearly turned on by his gaze. She flirts wordlessly with him and gets him to pursue her off the train, disappearing before he can clear the crowd to reach her. Sexual longing is in her face, but his remains inscrutable, almost sociopathic and dangerous—a clear sexual turn-on for some women. In another example, Brandon is out with his married-but-flexible boss David (James Badge Dale) at a high-end bar. David tries to pick up a beautiful blonde (Elizabeth Masucci) who is out with two of her girlfriends, but he’s all bluster and blunder. He goes home blind drunk, and Brandon, who has said almost nothing all night, is propositioned by the blonde out on the street and screws her in an alley.

Shame is loaded with nudity and sex of nearly every stripe, but it is joyless sex, anti-erotic, in fact. Fassbender is handsome, inviting, but a complete puzzle. He tries to pick up a woman whose boyfriend is a mean-looking biker; he knows he’s going to get his ass kicked, and it’s pretty clear that’s what he’s looking for. During a threesome, McQueen isolates Brandon’s face when a look of anguish is plastered across it—virtually the only true emotion Fassbender allows to escape. His performance is courageous, committed, and will prove frustrating for viewers who want to know why he is how he is. Of course, if we knew that about sex addicts, then perhaps there would be many fewer of them.

Carey Mulligan’s casting in this film is rather baffling. She plays the kind of mess Jennifer Jason Leigh patented in her career, but the veneer does not sit comfortably on Mulligan’s kewpie-doll face. McQueen had to shoot her in harsh lighting to bring some tired lines to the surface, but in almost an apology for making her look puffy, he offers caressing close-ups of her singing a very slowed-down version of “New York, New York” at a downtown nightclub. This scene is clearly an attempt to make her into some kind of tragic Judy Garlandesque icon rather than reveal character, since that’s the only song she sings in a show Brandon and David make a special trip to see. Basically, I didn’t see any need for the character of Sissy to be in this film other than to provide a bit of plot.

Shame is a terrific-looking film, one I would expect from a talented film school graduate like McQueen. McQueen seems to be a fan of Italian cinema, evoking the documentary style of the Neorealists and the alienation of Antonioni’s oeuvre with his modernist cityscapes and portentously lit night scenes. But he didn’t quite figure out how to make his closely observed film add up. There’s nothing wrong with keeping the reason for Brandon’s addiction unexplained, leaving the title to stand for the emotion of the film, just as Melancholia stood for the atmosphere of depression in Lars von Trier’s 2011 film. Unlike von Trier, McQueen distances us from Brandon’s pain, choosing to show us the symptoms without allowing us to empathize. If it were not for Fassbender’s spellbinding portrayal of this tormented man, there would be nothing to hold onto at all. As much as I admire the craft of this film and acknowledge the talent it took to bring it to life on the screen, I’m not sure I took anything important away from it. And because I think McQueen meant me to, I have to count this as a near miss.

  • Pat spoke:
    28th/11/2011 to 12:24 pm

    Marilyn –
    I have to admit that I kind of skimmed some of your review, as I intend to see this very soon (I’m hoping it will show up OnDemand later this week.) and want to go in not knowing a lot about what’s going tohappen.

    I believe McQueen was also a visual artist before turning filmmaker, and like others who’ve made that transition (Julian Schnabel, Mike Mills) the way he distills a story into powerful visual images, while withholding some of the exposition – is fascinating to me. It certainly worked powerfully in HUNGER – I’m anxious to see what he does here.

    Diasppointing to hear that Mulligan isn’t up to par here. I’ve loved most of what’ she’s done till now and had high hopes for this performance, too.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/11/2011 to 5:31 pm

    Hi Pat. It’s not that Mulligan is bad, it’s simply that her character is a walking cliche with no real reason to be in the film.

  • Jon spoke:
    29th/11/2011 to 10:19 am

    Hi Marilyn,

    Great examination of the film and the content. I haven’t seen it and actually may not see it. I’ve seen mostly mixed reviews to this point. I wasn’t a fan of Hunger. Although it is visually arresting and the content is potent, I found the film’s political/emotional involvement to be way to much for me to go along with it and I am not real excited to see this new one. Also, for some reason Fassbender is not my cup of tea. I haven’t appreciated him to the degree others have.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/11/2011 to 11:12 am

    Jon – I can understand your reluctance to spend a couple of hours with this film, particularly if you don’t like Fassbender. It’s not a fun experience, probably more interesting to a psychology major or mental health professionals than to a general audience. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    29th/11/2011 to 3:36 pm

    I can’t wait to see this film, and very much appreciate your ever-erudite analysis. I am particularly enamored of the neo-realist look and Antonioni styled alienation that is suggested by the compositions. I just this past week saw Fassbender as Jung in A DANGEROUS METHOD as was very impressed with his work.

    I know your mind today Marilyn, is on the passing of one of your heroes, Ken Russell, much as my mind is as well.

    Your review of THE DEVILS is one of this great site’s high water marks. Russell is a titan of post-war British cinema, as Mark Kermode rightly asserted in his moving tribute today

    R.I.P. Ken.

  • Rod spoke:
    29th/11/2011 to 9:34 pm

    I gotta say, Mare, this is one of your best; analysis of that image of Fassbender = superlative.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/11/2011 to 10:29 pm

    Sam – I know you will find a lot to value in this film, and yes, Mr. Russell is on my mind. Thank goodness we have his wonderful works to keep us warm.

    Hey, Rod, thanks for the compliment!

  • Rod spoke:
    30th/11/2011 to 8:33 am

    Yes, I do give them occasionally.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/11/2011 to 10:26 am

    Did the screener show up?

  • Rod spoke:
    30th/11/2011 to 10:30 am

    Not yet. I did get Albert Nobbs.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    4th/12/2011 to 9:57 am

    OK, Marilyn, I watched the film on Friday night with my usual entourage and I found it painful, despairing and brilliant.

    Interestingly enough I also saw THE KING OF DEVIL’S ISLAND on Thursday night, and like you found so much there to praise as well. That was another film, like this one, that received some splendid criticism by your hand.

    SHAME was stark, uncompromising and spectacularly performed by Fassbender and Mulligan, both of whom gave raw, peeling-away-the-gauze performances that brought this thematic study to full realization.

    In case, I didn’t feel as you did that it was a “near miss.” I think it succeeded in framing this kind of obsession and how it affects every aspect of life, and guides it’s direction. The desparation is conveyed in an antagonistic and/or indifferent urban mileu, which is conveyed with stunning cinematography, and the use of the Glenn Gould Variations on Bach is extraordinary. I came away myself understanding the essence of this man in this situation, trapped and doomed to repetition.

    It’s one of the best pictures of 2011.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/12/2011 to 10:36 am

    Sam – Good to hear you’ve seen two fine 2011 films.

    Pat’s comment that McQueen was a visual artist before becoming a filmmaker is telling for me in his approach to this subject. I feel he doesn’t have a grasp on narrative at this point; whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on what you are looking for in a film. For me, he definitely built a visual representation of a sex addict, but did not allow me a way in to contemplate what that meant for me. Even a visual artist will provide something like the Mona Lisa smile, or the regard of an onlooker, to offer an inner life (I’m not talking about abstract art here because this is a representational film). There simply was nothing like that here for me. So I have to count this as a visually beautiful, but largely empty film.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    5th/12/2011 to 9:27 am

    I finally saw my screener last night. Generally agree with you, although I did like Ms. Mulligan better than your assessment. Nice soundtrack, both the original music and classical and pop songs.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/12/2011 to 9:47 am

    Peter – Carey Mulligan is a fine young actress, but I thought she was wasted in this film. Her part was too cliched as written, though she tried her best. I know people have been reading incest in the relationship of Sissy and Brandon, but I didn’t and didn’t care to guess what their problem was. The music was nice, but sometimes it felt inappropriate; however, I’m not very tuned into soundtracks, so don’t go to me for a lot of commentary on that. I’ll take your word for it.

  • Pat spoke:
    18th/04/2012 to 10:42 am

    Marilyn –

    This is a VERY late-breaking appreciation of your insightful commentary on SHAME, wich I only just got to see last night.

    While I found Fassbender’s performance impressive, the visuals in this film were not nearly as compelling for me as those in McQueen’s HUNGER. (Although I love your analysis of the opening shot of a dead-looking Fassbender.) They didn’t put me in mind so much of Antonioni as of current-day high-end advertising and lifestyle magazines; I didn’t feel they reinforced the alienation and isolation of the character as strongl as I would have liked, not the way that the visuals in, say, L”AVVENTURA did. I wasn’t expecting McQueen to give me much backstory on the characters, and of course, didn’t get it, but wish it had been more visually compelling to me.

    Not Carey Mulligan’s best role, I will agree – although I did think her character and her imposing neediness was necessary to force Brandon to a sort of crisis point. (Although the copious blood from her suicide attempt – all that bright red on Brandon’s near-colorless home enivronment – may have been a tiny bit too on-the-nose.)

    Still, a fascinating if slightly disappointing film, and I think you capture it very well here. Nice work (as always).

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/04/2012 to 10:53 am

    Thanks, Pat. I was captured by the architectural details in this film, which put me in mind of Antonioni, as well as the ennui of the well to do. McQueen, of course, isn’t as well-developed a filmmaker as Antonioni, so the effect is less stark – and contrasting color with B&W is really no contest. Perhaps McQueen will get better, but I don’t see it right now.

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