Shame Sex Wide Open, Eyes Shamefully
Averted From Mirror
Naked in the dark and the light: Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan, in Steve
McQueen's "Shame". Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
December 2, 2011
New York City has a sexual energy unlike any other American city. You can
feel that pulsating energy day or night in the Big Apple. On the street.
The line of women as they wait in line for a bus at rush hour on Fifth Avenue.
The looks you get from them as you walk by. At bars, restaurants,
bookstores. The non-verbal language. Even in the bowels of the musty
subways, in trains with bodies packed together like sardines. Chance
encounters. Opportunities. Nights. And broad daylights.
I've been there. I've lived it. And Brandon Sullivan, the lead character in
Steve McQueen's intense new drama "Shame", is not a brother to me but I
know him -- not his addiction to sex -- but I am familiar with many, if not all
of the behaviors he engages in with the opposite sex during the course of Mr.
McQueen's stunning and provocative film, which gets under your skin pores like
oil seeping into places it has no right to be.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a single man living in New York City, working at
an advertising company. He doesn't sleep a single night without having sex
outdoors, at home or at someone else's home or at a nightclub. In every
respect he's a nocturnal rat scurrying around on Manhattan's insomniac streets.
Early on Brandon paces around in circles naked inside his swanky West 31st Street apartment suite like a mouse on a wheel
looking for cheese.
Brandon will end up eating plenty of it.
At work Brandon's computer hard drive has been investigated, and his
philandering boss David (James Badge Dale) declares it "dirty". Brandon, incapable
of forming a romantic, intimate relationship with a woman, doesn't blink at this
Likewise, Mr. McQueen's film doesn't blink for a second, boxing in its
protagonist from the start. Shot by "Hunger" cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, the
film's golden tones, ice-blue hues and shadowy, faded backdrops calibrate a
bold, stylish landscape of despair, isolation and decadence for both Brandon and
his nomadic and suddenly intruding sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, especially good
in two close-up scenes.) Sissy, a struggling cabaret singer and unannounced visitor to Brandon's
apartment, is a major wake up call for him, one extremely unwelcomed.
some respects Sissy may be the one woman Brandon is
most afraid of getting emotionally close to. There's history between
Sissy and Brandon that runs
deep, and the acting and script allow glimpses of the rough edges that keep their relationship
tense and on edge. You watch Sissy and you just want to put your arms
around her. Ms. Mulligan makes her an appealing, important presence.
The actress taps into darker recesses of her repertoire to give Sissy an urgency
and neediness that penetrates the film's stylized veneer. It's an achingly
real portrayal, the best work Ms. Mulligan has done. She sings Frank
Sinatra's "New York, New York" with a fragility and sadness that is piercing and
powerful, especially with the director's long take, broken briefly on three
Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale and
Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen's "Shame". Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight
"Shame", albeit predictable in one or two areas, is clinical, austere and incisive, and
rides on the back of Mr. Fassbender, who in the performance of the year
wonderfully combines physicality and a psychology in a frightening character who
lacks self-esteem and abhors himself. Brandon is an exercise in slow burn.
He percolates, rattles and explodes but the explosion is one of
sadness. He's a garbage collector. Brandon wants scraps and pieces
of other people's stolen moments. Appetizers only. Fantasy isn't his
object. He's the very Neanderthal he jokes about in one scene. Brandon is hungry and needs to be fed. Flesh is his diet.
He's not like the talky, scorning, contemptuous Jonathan of
Knowledge". He's a doer, a ladies' man -- no time to
talk. Brandon stays alive on a few minutes of heaven but dies inside when
relationship prospects (specifically Marianne, played by the alluring, beautiful and charming Nicole Beharie
Violet") come his way. Oh, relationships? Those
are Brandon's Kryptonite.
Mr. Fassbender, who worked with Mr. McQueen before so effectively and memorably
in "Hunger" (2008) and will do so next year ("Twelve Years A Slave"), shows
in "Shame" once again that he will run
through brick walls for his director. The actor works his Brandon into a
lather, and in several shots the director truncates the character, sometimes
disembodying Brandon the way Maria Onetto's troubled protagonist was fragmented in Lucrecia Martel's
"The Headless Woman". In "Shame" Brandon's view of the
seductive night in one shot is
framed by Venetian blinds, shrouded in a limiting, insular existence. In
some ways he looks more naked in white in this moment (photo below) than he does
early in the film.
There's a jarring moment where Brandon angrily scruffs his hair with all the
urgency of a scratch of a long-unscratched itch. It looks as if Brandon
may pull his head off in an instance revealing palpable tension.
(And yes, he's already been doing so in a phallic sense.) It's a prelude to a self-disintegration that engenders immense pity for a sad,
even sympathetic man. Brandon's desperation and loneliness are heightened
with each new sexual encounter, and the elegiac music score by
Harry Escott so absorbingly and movingly accentuates the path of diminished returns and
To put it bluntly, Brandon is a man who fucks himself into a paralyzing
nothingness. The more he fucks the less he feels. Brandon can't get
enough of something that's so powerful but so meaningless beyond its own small
occurrence in time. His basest feelings are his deepest but those
feelings are so shallow. The sex Brandon has isn't particularly arousing,
and we don't get the sense that he enjoys it.
Brandon might just as well be moving vigorously back and forth in a rocking
chair listening to Chopin as having sex with an incredibly attractive woman.
Feelings-wise, would the sex addict Brandon is be able to tell the difference?
The sex he has is rote and bloodless, without feeling or engagement; it's
guttural, unharmonious and primal, as fierce as sandpaper and the dry, abrasive
friction that rubbing it produces. Slabs of meat pushing and pulling
against each other. There are beautiful naked attractive bodies for us to
ogle -- but there's nothing exciting beyond the nakedness. Physically,
these are the very people you want to see naked and having sex but in "Shame"
you essentially watch mannequins bump and grind as if their very lives depended
on it. Sometimes they are faceless, silhouetted encounters. In this
tough economy sex is done on the quick, dirty and mostly cheap.
Women's eyes are not seen during the sex scenes in the film. It's as if
Brandon doesn't see women at all.
For better or worse, many men and women in the audience will likely recognize parts of themselves in
Brandon. Some will recognize themselves as people who have behaved almost
exactly the way Brandon does in "Shame". We've all
looked at pornography. We've all had our sexual adventures. We all
think about sex. And fantasize about it. Do we all fantasize about,
or think of doing what Brandon does here? Do we
do what he does, or variations of it?
self-entrapment: Michael Fassbender as Brandon in Steve
McQueen's "Shame". Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight
Whether one finds "Shame" unsettling or accurate or
offensive or chauvinist -- and I found it fascinating and accurate as one
heck of an anthropological study of human response to an oversaturated, over-stimulated
and under-satisfied sexual society --
there's no denying that "Shame" nails emotional disconnection and the
exploration of sex addiction sincerely and impressively. In real everyday life Brandons and Brendas
are everywhere. Some are
married. Some are not. Some can stop. Some can't. People
lead double and triple lives. Brandon lives an empty, incomplete one.
In the film's opening shot of Brandon in bed we glimpse a vacant, vulnerable and
sated man. He looks satisfied and sad and pathetic all at once. He's
at his weakest point and his strongest. Just look at Mr. Fassbender's eyes
"Shame" is a film you simply can't take your eyes off. It will have you
thinking and talking about it for a while, which is precisely what great films
are meant to do. I saw "Shame" two months ago,
and I've been thinking about it every day since. It's one of the year's
ten best films. It delivers a knockout punch to the gut. As written by Mr. McQueen and Abi
Morgan, "Shame" is direct and adult. In one instance a sex scene
is disturbing in its sparseness, emotional vacancy and incidental quality.
In another, the sex is sad and futile. And that's the point. There's no beating around the bush.
Everything we see is mature, explicit and persuasive. Each situation is
plausible and real. One powerful scene has Shakespearean effect.
Simply put, I was left shaken, stirred and electrified by this intelligent and
powerful film. Where Paul Shrader's "Auto Focus" used a demented and
creepy view of sex addiction to blunt Bob Crane's star-wattage -- and
Patrice Chéreau's ironically-titled "Intimacy", Louis Malle's "Damage", Adrian Lyne's "9 1/2
Weeks" and Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango In Paris" all viewed sex
and desire as a singular obsession shared in monogamous circles -- "Shame"
by contrast deals with the hunger for the
drug of ephemeral orgasmic highs with multiple partners and no strings
attached. For Brandon to go beyond sex with women would be to break his heart --
though his heart was probably broken a long time ago. (Note: Brandon gets
to do everything sexually that Tom Cruise's Bill Harford character only dreamed of in his nighttime
New York City sex odyssey in Stanley Kubrick's
"Eyes Wide Shut".)
Mr. McQueen's film often wears the high gloss of a tasteful porn magazine, each
page or picture bursting to life with color during Brandon's highest highs.
Color mostly vanishes when sex isn't part of the equation. The film
has only a few funny moments: a restaurant waiter as an interceding mini-voyeur in a scene
that's a great tension reliever, something this serious film needs and recognizes.
A confident film, "Shame" is unafraid to explore the most human and
unexpurgated passions. "Shame" flaunts its movers and
shakers' every temptation and pleasure. "Shame", however, is not about
sex; it's about alienation from emotional and full-blooded human connection.
The film, which opened in five U.S. cities today (San Francisco, Los Angeles,
Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York) flickers with moments of emotional
ambiguity and guilt in various characters, something the director has examined
In his work Mr. McQueen has often investigated the carnal, specifically the
erosion or desecration of the human body to reveal something deeper, desperate
or more dire. Nakedness is a recurring theme, including in pre-feature
film art work shorts like "Bear" (1993), featuring two naked men. In Mr.
McQueen's debut feature "Hunger" the human body was stripped naked,
battered and used as an unwavering political tool for justice, and Mr. Fassbender's self-imposed
as IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands was as intensely visceral as it was fiercely
Carey Mulligan as Sissy in Steve McQueen's drama "Shame".
Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight Pictures
In "Shame" Mr. Fassbender strips Brandon's emotions away at their core, almost
obliterating them at times, losing himself in a reckless descent into the abyss.
He often pauses to gauge his sense of shame in his behavior but only briefly. He
makes the physically self-entrapped Brandon think with his body without feeling
with his heart. It's a raw, feral and honest portrayal. The
subway train Brandon rides on is a subterranean conduit to his sexual
underground of desperation and humiliation. Via Mr. Bobbitt's camera the
atmosphere gets harsher and textures rougher when Brandon prowls the inviting
New York night.
McQueen's direction features his trademark long takes and fixed camera two-shots
of dialoguing characters. Sometimes his camera observes explosive
situations from a safe distance. Other times the lens is too close for us
to breathe and purely intoxicating but at all times Mr. McQueen never alienates his audience.
We can't pull away from this New York story even if we wanted to. The power of "Shame" is in its intimacy and how compact yet enormous it is on a
Hollywood scale, even though it's clearly an independent film, the kind
Hollywood used to make back in the 1960s and 70s. "Shame" is an effective
and detailed character study, thorough and sincere in every sense.
Cut from authentic cloth, Brandon isn't a caricature, he's an everyman, recognizable and genuine to the
audience, which makes him all the more human, tragic and heartbreaking. The
context of Brandon's sex addiction is spoken in silences. Brandon rarely
lives in the present. He exists through thoughts of past conquests and the
ones he seeks in the future. Sex constantly floats around in his head,
defining his state of mind, with sex presented out of sequence, and afterthoughts and
daydreams of it sometimes in blurred or asymmetrical shots. Witness a
close-up shot of Brandon out of focus on a subway train immediately followed
with a shot of a woman in focus on the same train early on. Shots like
these are a tribute
to Mr. McQueen's think-outside-the-box style of filmmaking. His vision
allows us to glimpse these characters as if they are a part of our real lives
and not a movie. We aren't movie spectators in Mr. McQueen's world; we are
eavesdroppers, almost virtual participants.
Of the sexual encounters we glimpse and Brandon partakes or witnesses,
"Shame" could just as easily be playing out such memories and reverberations of
sex as Brandon's fantasies or subconscious longings; after all, the word "FUCK"
is visible in graffiti right above the head of one of the women Brandon has sex
with. That f-word however, could simply be the reinforcement of a society
that with its advertising, innuendo and double-entendres is perhaps subliminally commanding its subjects to fuck away at their
hearts' content. In our society sex is everywhere, and the
film's periphery supplements this truism on numerous levels and in subtle and
not-so-subtle ways. (There's a taxicab with a roof advertising sign with
the word "GIRLS" on it, and it is framed at Brandon's eye level, and certainly
not by accident, as he dines in a restaurant with Marianne. It's clear
that one of the things Mr. McQueen wants to seriously discuss is the easy
availability of sex
and its effect on people in a highly stressed-out society. He succeeds in
what is an intelligent, finely calibrated drama.)
There's an inherent tension between the spoken and unspoken throughout "Shame".
Double-speak is a character. Furthermore, when Brandon jokes to a co-worker that "your
wife wouldn't let me leave this morning", you get the feeling that he may not
be joking at all. In "Shame" the language men and women speak
to each other and the opposite sex in has sexual innuendo dripping from it.
There's also an ironic joke about
Mr. Fassbender, whose Brandon is called a "slacker". (The truth,
for the actor at least, is just the opposite: Mr. Fassbender will be at work on
no less than five films next year, and is slated to be seen on the big screen in
2012 in at least four. He was in four films in 2011.)
Beharie as Marianne and Michael Fassbender as Brandon, in "Shame". Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Ridiculously -- and perhaps as a clear example of the Beatles-like fanaticism that
surrounds the talented Irish-German actor these days -- much has been made on the Internet on
the subject of Mr. Fassbender's penis in "Shame", but it is the actor's emotional nakedness and
complexity as Brandon that is the big revelation of Mr. McQueen's shattering
film. (For all the fuss that is made about women's breasts in films, I
suppose this ruckus about a man's penis is a departure from what we're
accustomed to.) Yet it is love -- or rather the absence of it -- that is a huge
"Shame", reinforced by some characters who yearn for it, by
Brandon's fear of it, and by extension the
film's music as a chorus or anthem for it, such as the 1970s sounds of R&B disco/funk group Chic and their
classic song "I Want Your Love". (Incidentally,
Glenn Gould's piano offers an elegant interlude in the busy city, and the
fantastic production design by Judy Becker and set decoration by Heather Loeffler are gold. )
Among the many things "Shame" ponders: what is "normal" and what is
"addiction" in the 21st century?
Where, if at all, is that line drawn? And what is it in society that
allows normative vs. addictive appetites to flourish?
(Politicians' infidelities and the way the media reports them in the U.S.
Are such news reports glorification? Childish judgment? What of
Anthony Weiner? Bill Clinton? David Duchovny? Tiger Woods?
"Sexting"?) Is Brandon an addict or is he
simply feeding his biological and hormonal urges in an uptight America?
Is it the frequency of the sex or the way Brandon goes about acquiring it that's
the problem? Are the men and women of "Shame" seeking a
release, merely escaping the strictures of a society that constantly tells them what
they should and should not do? Is it more or less than that?
An early scene in a bar subtly reveals the "dance" between men and women.
Watch one of the women and the way she very quickly sizes up Brandon. Her
eyes are large and beautiful. Her eye movement is ever-so-fleeting and
discreet. She will do two kinds of dances. It's worth noting that
the women of "Shame" are much more aggressive than the men. They too are
seeking their sexual adventures on their own terms as always in life, defining
the way they play out. This specific early bar scene in "Shame" is one of
the strongest assertions of a woman's command of a situation with a man in the
film, and it plays out sublimely, and without effort.
For all its mood lighting and intricacy "Shame" doesn't isolate or objectify
Brandon's experiences or hold them up for judgment. The film presents and
observes. To that extent, "Shame" skillfully shows gradations of illicit
behavior by others as a contrast to Brandon's vigorous, dangerous and relentless
pursuits, further intensified by his troubled sister (and by extension a
severely troubled family history that may involve abuse.) Meanwhile,
David's hypocrisy as a married man may be a metaphor for a puritanical yet
deeply conflicted American society when it comes to sex and the boundaries of
sexual behavior. Brandon may be isolated but in this Big Apple of eight
million he's certainly not alone. Apparently 24 million people in America
suffer from sex addition. That's a lot of people.
The sound of a ticking clock that beats like a time bomb countdown is all that
separates Brandon from his next sexual episode. We hear him breathing
heavily. We inhabit Brandon's space and mind so completely. One
particular line Brandon speaks is heartbreaking and humiliating, a line that
depresses the living daylights out of me. I won't repeat it, but its
reductionist effect is beyond sad and pathetic.
Sex addiction has been attempted before on screen, but Mr. McQueen strips away
the pretense to dig into the mechanics -- physiological and otherwise -- to make
"Shame" breathe the way it does. Whether it be Caveh Zahedi's
self-confessional "I Am A Sex Addict", or the mockumentary "Confessions Of A
Porn Addict" or the Spanish film "Diary Of A Nymphomaniac" (which shares a
similar stylistic feel to "Shame"), none of these films penetrates the surface
of their subject matters, and the audience is sufficiently removed enough to
judge the events and lead characters in them.
There's a propulsive episode during the climax (no pun intended) of "Shame" that
cements Mr. Fassbender's phenomenal, Oscar-worthy performance and Mr.
direction. We see Brandon doing
what he does during a moment that is so forceful we expect to see a
shot that would logically follow in all respects in an NC-17 film (a rating this
film doesn't deserve.) The shot doesn't materialize. Titillation --
and there's a modicum of it in "Shame", which sincerely and honestly
explores sex and disconnection in a technological age, and on a deeper
subconscious level society's impulses (and responses) to sex -- is not the
There's only one way for this shame to end.
With: Elizabeth Masucci, Hannah Ware, Lucy Walters, Amy Hargreaves, Anna Rose
Hopkins, Charisse Bellante, Alexandra Vino, Briana Marin, Calamity Chang, DeeDee
--Exclusively in theaters in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington
D.C., and New York City; expands to additional cities and theaters on December 9
and beyond. "Shame" is rated NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some
explicit sexual content. The film contains full frontal male and female
nudity, everyday toilet affairs, brief drug use, an intense and disturbing scene
of blood, sexual language and sexual imagery. The film's running time is
one hour and 41 minutes.
Unscripted: Review of Steve McQueen's film "Shame"
Related: Steve McQueen on the pervasiveness of sex, society Michael Fassbender
and the artistry of "Shame" (interview)
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