99 Minutes // UK // Fox Searchlight
directed by STEVE McQUEEN / written by STEVE McQUEEN and ARI MORGEN
Sunday, September 11th, 2011 – The Princess of Wales Theater (TIFF 2011)
Starring: MICHAEL FASSBENDER and CAREY MULLIGAN
Most films about addiction are about people struggling to manage their lives perilously falling into a pit of despair. They replace their sense of responsibility with abhorrent behavior that is regarded as dangerous by loved ones – forcing the character to reflect and choose between their new reckless life or the life they used to know. In Shame, Brandon’s (Michael Fassbender) behavior has never evoked such a confrontation because he’s never led a conventional life, nor has he had intimacy with anyone, so he’s never ha wholesomeness to have threatened, causing him to confront his state. No, instead Steve McQueen’s film is about a man who inherently hates himself – but having lately felt absolutely empty – quietly needing love and desperately seeking reform for his sexual indiscretions.
Brandon is a secretive man – bounded as such by the shame that haunts him – feeling volatile for the first time in his life. Or is it the first time? Shame’s obscurity is the thing that people are going to be most challenged by. Not that that’s wholly bad — people love to be given an incomplete picture and told to imagine the rest of it, especially when the film being watched is as fundamentally and artistically interesting as this film is, or the performance on-screen as endlessly fascinating as Fassbender’s Brandon.
Shame is about sex addiction and tells the story of one man’s internal battle where virtuosity and goodness are at war with the despotic darkness which controls and always has controlled him. The screenplay (by McQueen and Abi Morgan) allude to three vague events/experiences in Brandon’s life which could possibly unlock the key to understanding why he’s is so depressingly dependent on sexual stimulation. Early into the film, when Sissy (Carey Mulligan) blows into Brandon’s life, a dark and unusual air imbues the time they share together; an implication that the siblings rot in sexual abuse as children is made. Is this what corrupted Brandon for good? Perhaps it heavily influenced his youth and when he moved to a more emotionally cold environment he came undone and succumbed to a life made satisfied by perversions. Later, when Brandon finds himself honestly communicating with a woman on a date, he reveals that the way his skull is calibrated is abnormal and that it can be traced back to the Neanderthals. This insert has the same feel of a film school minded’s first screenplay after having learned about the wit of symbolism and does, but very momentarily, cloud the otherwise lucidity of Shame’s staggering insight and give Brandon’s state a sort of false helplessness by suggesting he never could have possibly had a hand in his primitive sexual nature; absolutely railing against the commonality of the tale which the film champions as social commentary (but again, only momentarily). Or maybe that’s just my own film school minded observation which if McQueen called inane I would believe true (because I respect his integrity and mind, especially after this film). Then, there’s the possibility that he was never sexually abused and is simply one of many who take solace in emotionally destitute sexual encounters; disconnected emotionally because all of his sexual (re: intimate) encounters have been sterilized by screens – computer and emotional, be it on her part or his. In the end, it isn’t so much about which one you think McQueen was trying to say, just that the platitude “Less is more” is one he certainly regards during his process and that to enjoy the film most you’ll need to be in a somewhat discerning mood. Hell, even if you’re not the mood the dark and aesthetically pleasing style of the film will draw you into it.
In 2008, Steve McQueen’s sleek perfectionism in directing Hunger won him the Camera d’Or (the cinematography prize) at Cannes. His camera is even more discerning this time around. His use of misc-en-scene reminded me of how I felt during my first viewings of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt and Louis Malle’s The Fire Within, but yet, thematically, the film possesses the raw emotional spirit of a kitchen sink drama.
There’s a scene where Brandon goes for a midnight run when he could no longer handle the feelings his apartment had incited. He runs to a brooding composition by Bach and each time he foot patters against the sidewalk a note is hit accordingly. Street lights of ill yellow beat down on him while the camera tracks his motion to the far right of the screen. He’s all alone. We get a sense that Brandon longs to feel the way ordinary people do — he tells himself that it’s time to change now — but also fears losing control of his life’s direction; until forming his addiction, he was dependent on nothing and to imagine going back to that kind of vulnerable life scares him;. To have his heartbroken like any other man would be his final undoing and by clinging onto the hope of a hypothetical he can circumvent himself and believe he has no addiction. He’s alone and he’s many things when he’s alone. Fortunately for us, he’s alone a lot of the time, but even more fortunately, Michael Fassbender plays this ruminative and obsessed man.
There are a million words to describe Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of Brandon in Shame. In this case, I’m thankful that I’m just this blogger because the critics for this guy are gonna have a tough time when this film opens December 2nd. They’ll be whipping out their thesauruses, out-wording one and other; striving to ascertain in words what Fassbender does so silently on-screen, but each of them inevitably concluding that it’s impossible. The embodiments of every character he’s portrayed require ten dollar words in order to even begin to describe what he’s telling us and how brilliant a fashion in which he tells. There isn’t an adjective – positive or explanatory – that one could not use to trace over what Fassbender has marvelously laid to film. Reading this review will be of no help in preparing you or describing to you the endless brilliance he possesses as Brandon.
Working opposite Fassbender’s Brandon is Carey Mulligan as Sissy, the character by which Brandon experiences most of his guilt and some of his shame by being a living reminder of his past. Her emotions are wild and unstable from a living a life without having been loved or supported in any way by her family, and she’s happy to have them as such as long as it keeps her from being withdrawn like Brandon and the company he keeps — and though they are unstable, when she sings, she can control them with woeful incandescence.
There’s only one scene — a long scene that some will find enduring — where we behold Sissy’s song – and it involves Brandon’s tenuous presence. When the song begins, a heartbroken rendition of ‘New York, New York,’ and all eyes are on Sissy, Brandon is all at once thinking about the city he lives in and how his life has matched up to the one in the song; regretting how he’s neglected his sister all her life – how this is the first time he’s ever seen her perform and how he’s only here because his adulterous boss (with intentions of sleeping with Sissy) forced him into it; proud of how openly she bears herself on-stage in front of strangers and longing for the strength to live as openly as her. When the song ends and tears have been shed by actor and viewer alike, there is only Fassbender sitting prolifically with eyes stuck to his sister. It’s hushed – even in the auditorium. This is the moment where everyone understands why Michael Fassbender is the most important actor working.
He encapsulates a lot in this performance and it isn’t that this character has a big personality, but rather he projects one while simultaneously expressing the upsetting undercurrent that defines him. Fassbender’s eyes are an invaluable asset as they convey much of the pain beneath his manly shape. Although they are mostly virulent — completely so when lusting to satisfy his addiction — when the light catches one of his haunted eyes and we can see into their depths, we see someone painfully desperate for love. The first moment this happens we realize that we cannot hold anything against Brandon; that there is nothing he could do which would provoke us enough to turn him aside like the cruel city he’s become — and believe me, those feelings are tested toward the end in a state of depravity at a bar. There, well there, Fassbender’s Brandon shows none of the vulnerability that compels our heart. Instead he becomes hatred and it’s heartbreaking.
Then, we must regard Steve McQueen for his fundamental role in writing Brandon’s complex psychology and molding Fassbender’s performance. It is he and Fassbender — not Fassbender alone — who unearth Brandon’s deepest-running emotions and use Fassbender’s tenuous countenance to actualize it. Additionally, it’s fun to point out to what great effect McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt employ long shots and how they can draw life from a desolate man sitting with his back to the camera. There will be scenes that view Brandon from afar — the cinematography is much more spacious and varied than one would assume given the content — that manage to convey what the character is contemplating and in the exact emotional context. Most importantly, no shot ever draws attention to itself (in regarding the long shots, Robert Altman would’ve been proud), but rather works in concert with every one that came before or after it, producing common atmosphere between viewer and film, allowing us extra access to Brandon’s psychology through likenesses. For example, at the beginning the metallic color scheme is arousing and cool. Silver, black, the occasional red and blue, it’s slick and enticing. Then it never changes – it repeats itself and becomes lifeless (a play on Ingmar) – and we start relating to the dreary recursion which has Brandon so disconnected. Like Fassbender’s performance, thinking about the wonderful different aspects of McQueen’s work is a perpetual source of pleasure.
How much you’re going to enjoy the film also depends on how you respond to Brandon’s personality. Fortunately, he’s unlike most movie addicts who act entirely with their body and behave annoyingly. Though his behavior is repetitive — he goes out and gets laid, if he ever fails there are prostitutes and pornography to satisfy at home — none of those scenes feel redundant because in them Fassbender shows us the subtly different sides of his character. For the most part, his countenance is mostly pleasant — he’s generally polite, very charming and intimidatingly casual — so watching the character go through his daily routine is never annoying. It’s coldly professional and entices the senses. The same could be said of the film had Fassbender not been so intimate with his audience. Intimate enough, anyway, to show a spectrum of his faces leading up to and during his emotionally won orgasm during a harrowing and elaborately documented threesome.
With an ambiguous ending that will leave you either romantically hoping or simply dyspeptic, Shame transcends being a complex film about Brandon’s addiction to an introspective journey for the individual who watched it. It stays with you. It doesn’t haunt you because you relish remembering it. In its worst fans, the film and Fassbender will receive derision for being too contained. They will be the ones who couldn’t see into their depths. In its greatest fans, the film will be a holy doctrine on disconnected personalities and a technical masterclass. Speaking personally, Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender have collaborated on quite possibly the finest psychoanalytical portrait of a fictional character in the history of cinema.