24 September 2011 | DonFishies
An expertly crafted and shocking film that will divide audiences
Despite having never seen Steve McQueen's Hunger, the smouldering and sensational acclaim for Shame was simply unreal. Having heard terrific things about the film, I ventured out and snagged a last minute ticket to the premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Weeks later, I am still trying to decipher what may be one of the most shocking and raw films I have seen in quite some time.
The titular Shame in question is what Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a posh yuppie living in New York City, must live with every day. He is a sex addict, and his addiction knows no bounds. His estranged sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) has also just dropped by his apartment for an extended stay, making things all the worse.
The plot may not sound like much, because there really is not all that much to it storywise. Shame is more of a portrait of a man struggling with his inner demons than it is anything else. There is a story at its very core, but the primary focus is always on Brandon, his addiction and what boundaries and limits it pushes him to. I had read about some of the more "unconventional" and decidedly non-mainstream sexual escapades (for lack of a better word) Brandon gets himself into, but I was still incredibly surprised and downright shocked by just how far McQueen goes with this character. He is brazen and uninhibited in what he shows on screen, bravely defying the conventions of what we typically can and cannot see in mainstream cinema. McQueen does not shy away from hard truths, and does not even try to mask the explicit nature of some of the sexual acts. Seeing how far Brandon will go to satisfy and suppress himself is simply harrowing, not unlike films like Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream were with their characters' drug addictions.
While the film and its frank depiction of sexuality are sometimes difficult to watch, I found myself mesmerized by the choreography and cinematography at play throughout. McQueen frames the film with the audience in the position of a voyeur. Early on, we see Brandon's morning routine, featuring Fassbender roaming around his chic apartment totally naked. We see him at his most honest and his most vulnerable, a man who is unable to hide the truth about himself. Later, we watch him as he interacts with his office co-workers from behind huge glass windows, and from a table across from him at a restaurant while he is on a date. McQueen uses a lot of unbroken shots to help depict this slice of Brandon's life through tracking shots and an immense amount of long shots. They help set the very somber mood, and allow the audience to continue watching as if they were an actual character peering into the events that transpire for him. McQueen also expertly uses music to help dictate the action on screen, tearing away the dialogue or sounds of the scene. It makes for an awkward feeling, but one that evokes a response with every new scene.
But for all of the shock and audacity, McQueen still managed to make a deeply troubled film that leaves a lot unsaid, and even more unresolved. He does not give out simple answers for what causes Brandon's addiction, or even the reasoning behind the troubled and strained relationship between Brandon and Sissy. While leaving some things enigmatic and up to the viewers to decide (many have already voiced their concerns regarding incest, which seem a bit too outrageous for this kind of film) is incredibly intriguing and help further propel the voyeuristic means of viewing the film, it also makes for maddening thoughts afterwards. What exactly is McQueen trying to say? What is the point he is trying to make? It all feels like it builds towards nothing outside of an unsatisfying and deludingly ambiguous climax. As mentioned earlier, it feels like the story and just about everything else came second to the portrait he wanted to paint through Fassbender's canvas. I can appreciate the film as it is, but it makes it hard to love it the way I thought I would.
Fassbender is stunning as Brandon, magnetizing the audience from the beginning all the way to the end. He propels the film, using his reactions and emotions to define the character. He makes Brandon's struggle one that is very real, and almost horrific. He is unable to feel intimacy, and watching him struggle to fulfill his urges is fascinating and deeply disturbing all at once. Watching his face through candid closeups, you can see just how much raw power went into the role. But while it is a stellar and tortured performance that more than proves his weight as an up and coming actor, I never found him to be nearly as incredibly impressive as we know he can be. I still find myself at odds with how great it was, and how much greater it could have been.
While James Badge Dale is effective in his small role as Brandon's smarmy and sleazy boss David, it is Mulligan who truly compliments Fassbender. Her role does not ask a whole lot of her, but her pained expressions and infinite desire to be loved by everyone is more than enough to make this a memorable turn for her. While the full frontal nudity was near useless, I only wish that she could have done more.
Shame is a very well done film, but one that will divide audiences. On one hand, it is an expertly crafted film about addiction that packs a great lead performance. On the other hand, it is a maddening film that answers very little it asks and sometimes shocks just for the sake of it. It is an impressive feat for a second feature, but one that I think could have been even better.