Friday, December 2, 2011


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/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, 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 news. 

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. 

In 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 occasions.

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 "Carnal 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 of "American 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 self-destruction. 

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?

Physical 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 for confirmation.

"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 before.

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 35-pound erosion as IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands was as intensely visceral as it was fiercely single-minded. 

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.

Mr. 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.)

Nicole 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 factor in "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. McQueen's fine 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 film's object.  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 Luxe.

--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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