Friday, January 27, 2012

Shame Movie Review

Steve McQueen’s Shame is about a man who is compulsively addicted to sexual pleasure. Like any other kind of addict, his cravings continue to push limits and take control of his life. He takes new sexual partners (sometimes paying for it) with stunning regularity. He is also a frequent masturbator, sometimes unable to hold off while at work. His boss informs him that the IT department came across a trove of pornography on his computer’s hard drive, but assumes it must have been an intern.

The sex is not treated as prurient, erotic or, as the title would suggest, shameful. For Brandon Sullivan it is a fact of his life and one that imprisons him in his own sense of shame. But he’s not creepy. In all aspects he is a normal working man. Except that he’s also got the movie star good looks of Michael Fassbender with his hard jaw line, piercing eyes and just a hint of an Irish lilt when he speaks. It’s the eyes and body language that exudes a take-charge attitude that allows him to seduce a young married woman on the subway by doing nothing more than staring at her and allowing the slightest hint of a smile.

His ability to maintain a cool distance makes him successful in a bar one night celebrating with his colleagues. His boss David (James Badge Dale) is one of these guys who rides high on his own feelings of importance, which turns out to be a complete turnoff to the sexy blonde in a business suit at the bar with two friends. But she notices Brandon, and after David has been sent off in a cab, she comes round with her car to pick up him up.

He seems like a normal New York lothario until he gets home and finds a woman in his shower. He’s obviously not expecting anyone judging by the swiftness with which he locates his baseball bat and barges into the bathroom screaming. Both Brandon and the naked woman scream, but they obviously know each other and exchange a brief catching up conversation while she stands there stark naked in front of him. A line of dialogue reveals she’s the woman who’s been leaving him the voicemails we hear in the first minutes of the film, but who is she?

It’s a testament to the performances of Fassbender and Carey Mulligan as Sissy, the naked shower woman, as well as McQueen’s direction that the ensuing scene in which she asks if she can stay with him gave me the distinct impression that they were brother and sister. But they couldn’t be, what with the way they both casually stood in the bathroom while one was completely exposed. Sure enough, Sissy is his troubled sister, whose back story is not entirely fleshed out (although that’s not a bad thing) but she’s been living in different places over the years without much stability, as her brother would probably complain.

Mulligan and Fassbender give unbridled performances, not just because they lay bare their bodies for McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, whose lighting makes no attempt to conceal or obfuscate their physical presence, just as the screenplay, co-written by McQueen and Abi Morgan insists on being candid when it comes to the sheer duress Brandon and Sissy live under. They are broken individuals, scarred it would seem by a past that is never revealed. But Shame is not about how the past affects them, it’s about the here and now, how each is a prisoner of personal demons and both have difficulty connecting emotionally with someone long term.

Brandon has what appears to be one of the nicest and probably most realistic movie dates ever written with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a lovely work colleague. They enjoy dinner and talk about where they’re from, siblings, and a bit of relationship history. She’s going through a divorce and he’s never had a relationship that lasted longer than four months. Marianne is astonished by this news and his assertion that he thinks marriage is unrealistic. This is not a ground-breaking idea. Brandon is certainly not the first person to make such a claim, but it is entirely within the parameters of his character to believe and to have no qualms about revealing it on a first date. Perhaps it is this very conversation combined with her constant presence in his life at the office that causes him an inability to perform sexually the next day. This is just one of myriad ways he feels shame as well as the time Sissy catches him masturbating and then snoops into his live sex chat. His almost violent reaction signals something very wrong in their relationship.

Whereas Brandon mostly internalizes the wreckage of his life, Sissy is more outwardly an emotional disaster. Trying to make it as a lounge singer, she invites Brandon and David to a gig at a swanky bar where she performs a mournful rendition of “New York, New York.” “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” she sings, reminding us that New York City is the toughest of towns, maybe too harsh at times for someone like Sissy. She is also quick to jump into bed with strangers, but when she does so with David, we see the first signs of Brandon’s near inability to control his rage, an emotion that for him is inextricably wound with feelings of lust.

Every protagonist needs to have an arc, should go through some kind of change and come out the other end of a story knowing more than he did at the start. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what change takes place in Brandon except that his sexual proclivities become more and more dangerous. His redemption is subtle, but comes in a moment when he stops being self-absorbed for a moment to understand the full ramifications of a voicemail Sissy leaves for him saying, “It’s not that we’re bad people, we just come from a bad place.” The closing scene of the film is suggestive, though not explicit, of a change in Brandon, when he has another silent encounter with the same woman on the subway. When we see her wedding ring again, we recall his admonition of Sissy for not just going to bed with a married man, but continuing to call him after. It’s an enigmatic ending, not unlike Brandon as a character, that McQueen wisely leaves to the imagination what he’s going to choose.

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