Warning! Spoilers Ahead!
The second in what could potentially be a bodily necessities trilogy box-set (if only a film about the perils of sleep comes next), Shame reunites visual-artist-turned-feature-director Steve McQueen with Michael Fassbender for a grim portrait of sexual addiction.
The opening image, resembling one of the last moments in McQueen’s acclaimed 2008 film Hunger, is of a naked and imprisoned Fassbender in bed, gazing straight up at the ceiling, revealing the barely discernible line between a body that’s alive and one that’s dead. His character’s prison is the key difference though. He’s not Hunger’s Bobby Sands — an IRA prisoner in 1981 using his body to achieve political freedom by starving himself to death. Shame’s Brendan is prisoner to his body; his life solely revolves around sexual release in any form, from one night stands to quality alone time masturbating in showers and bathroom stalls. But it’s not at all the joke it was in Choke — here, it’s just bleak the whole way down.
At its core, the film is a variation on the “addictions are bad” plotline, eschewing the typical alcohol and drug abuse to shed light on that new-fangled, modern addiction incessantly questioned and mocked during the Tiger Woods scandal. It shares some of the best qualities of other similarly themed films like Requiem for a Dream — from the pity it generates for its protagonist to the intensely haunting downward spiral montages — but it’s also subject to the same pitfalls.
The nature of watching an addiction play out on-screen can be completely alienating to viewers unacquainted with that visceral and crippling dependence on a substance. Beyond pity, it’s hard to feel for and truly connect with the addict, because a realistically written character lacks much of an interior life beyond satisfying the addiction. And if the film goes to great lengths to show the physical pain or the destruction of the addict’s relationships, it can easily descend into didactic melodrama, losing the viewer in the process. It’s a writer’s worst nightmare.
With the right actor, though, it can be a dream role, and Fassbender more than lives up to all the hype and praise for his performance. There isn’t any striking transformation that renders him completely unrecognizable. It’s the same sort of role he’s already played twice this year — first when he was brooding while seducing Jane Eyre and later when he was brooding while seducing Charles Xavier — but here he gets the chance to truly reach his potential, revealing all the layers and depth he can create for a character. His intense gaze can be transfixing one moment, only to switch gears, capturing his pain and suffering the next; his smile is both endearing and maniacal; and his cool and composed voice masks an explosive temper that will make any viewer flinch.
As his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) re-enters his life, she imposes on his precarious situation and kickstarts the plot. Their chemistry becomes an intriguing mix of sibling sweetness, dark unspoken secrets and vaguely incestuous undertones. The character appears to be a new direction for Mulligan at first, but eventually she ends up with another typical fragile victim role, playing it well, as usual. Her emotionally needy, vagabond lifestyle is a tragic counterpoint that’s inexorably tied to Brandon’s detached and cyclical behavior — two ways of developing from past trauma and getting trapped by it.
McQueen retains some of his distinctive aesthetic qualities for an arguably more fitting effect here than in Hunger. Specifically, the mise-en-scÃ¨ne and the minimalist screenplay appear carefully and precisely constructed to mirror Brandon’s psychology. The long, often static takes that compose most of the film are both seductive and restrictive. Capturing that pleasure-pain paradox of addiction, beautiful tracking shots and intimate close-ups constantly withhold the release of a different angle or distance by refusing to cut away. The environments operate much like his body does, with subways and elevators both confining him and providing the freedom to go anywhere he wants, while waterfront and highrise skyline views seem to put the world at his fingertips, yet trap him behind panes of glass and fences.
All together, this precise attention to detail is a rather subtle, yet remarkable achievement that gives Shame a great deal of its power, but it’s also what takes some of the power away. Mimicking its main character, the screenplay keeps secrets secret, avoids the future and shies away from emotional intimacy, treating its audience like a character in Brandon’s life. Instead of making the journey alongside him, we’re always kept on the outside looking in. In the end, maybe it’s all just meant to recreate the bittersweet nature of his addiction. A way of showing us how something can be considered a success in every respect, yet still leave you feeling exhausted and hollow when it’s over.
For more on the controversy surrounding Shame, click here to read our editorial on the NC-17 rating.
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Written by Tarun Shanker (@tuna365)
After tragically losing his childhood innocence by watching Steven Seagal kick a man under a train in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, Tarun emerged from the shadows to graduate from NYU with a degree in Film & English and become a mild-mannered New York City assistant by day and a… More »
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