Friday, December 30, 2011


In Shame's opening sequence, in which director Steve McQueen and editor Sean Bobbitt introduce us to the everyday routine of a lonely sex addict, there's a moment where Michael Fassbender's face is out of focus, exaggerating the shadows under his eyes, the hollowness of his cheeks, the sharp angles of his jaw.

The symbolism is obvious--his character, Brandon Sullivan, is not quite among the living but not quite dead. He's trapped in a no-man's-land of compulsive behavior, never satisfied, always hungry.

In this particular scene he's eyeing a redhead on the subway, sizing her up, undressing her with his eyes. As for the redhead, she refuses to meet his eye at first, but then, still blushing, becomes bolder, not just meeting his stare but almost daring him with a coy smile. There's a ring on her finger, though, and soon a look of guilt crosses her face. She flees at the next stop, with Brandon following her but quickly loosing her in the crowd.

Is Brandon a willing predator, or a slave to something he can't control? In scenes like this, he seems to be fully conscious of what he's doing, but in others there's every indication that his addiction is legitimate. Sex to him is as necessary as three square meals a day--when it's time, it's time, and he's practiced enough to snare what he wants when he wants it.

The trade off is that Brandon doesn't have anything that you could remotely call a life. When he's not pursuing his lusts he's covering his tracks, keeping the sordid corners of his life hidden from view.

He's not a bad guy, after all. He is the type of suave gentleman who will hold the door open for you with a gracious smile. And unlike his obnoxious boss, he's not likely to hound a woman at a bar with pickup lines and obvious come-ons. His magnetic smile seems to naturally draw women to him, and when it doesn't, he has the money to pay for what he wants.

Still, his life is a solitary hell, devoid of love, and for whatever reason he wants nothing to do with the one woman who loves him and needs his love in return--his sister, Sissie (Carey Mulligan).

Sissie is damaged in her own right. "I love you, I love you, please!"she screams into her cellphone one night, as Brandon eavesdrops.To whom is she talking? He doesn't know and neither do we. All we know is that she doesn't have anywhere else to go, and so Brandon reluctantly agrees to let her sleep on his couch.

Reluctantly is being nice about it, though. He seems to genuinely hate Sissie, even as his eyes tear up one night while listening to her sing "New York, New York" in a swanky club. Whatever pain runs through their family runs so deep that neither feels the need to talk about it, though they obviously should. Sissie has scars on her arm and by the movie's end she'll have a few more. Brandon, meanwhile, will finally be brought to the brink, able to finally see himself as he really is--a broken man in need of something more than the empty sex and pornography he's filled his life with.

This is the second collaboration between McQueen and Fassbender. The first, Hunger, was the daring and austere story of a man's slow, agonizing death at the hands of a hunger strike. More than one critic has commented that Shame could just as easily have had the same title, and it's true, as Brandon's shame is more implied than overt, which is one of the movie's true negatives. McQueen and his co-screenwriter, Abi Morgan, may push Brandon towards his breaking point, but his journey would've been more powerful if there'd been a greater sense all along that he wanted to change but just couldn't find the strength.

Working against it, too, is the movie's emotional distance from its subject. This kind of distance can be exactly what's needed if what's on screen is sufficiently powerful enough. Such was the case with Hunger. In Shame, it's hard to escape the sense that we need just a little bit more. In the hands of a director like Terrence Malick, we would have been given Brandon's thoughts--his regrets, his longings, his inward cries for help. Instead we're left on our own to decipher the lines of Fassbender's face.

More often than not, his face is all we need. There are moments of such stillness, though, when Brandon's face is so eerily calm, that we can't be sure what's going on inside him. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything.

As a PS, I should mention that Shame is not easy to sit through. It's suitably unsexy, casting Brandon's life in a disgusting light, and the result is at times uncomfortable to watch. This, of course, makes Shame a hard movie to recommend outright. What saves it is its artfulness (the visual compositions are beautiful, as is the score by Harry Escott) and its moral center--which some critics have derided as too simplistically moralistic.

PPS: I don't typically say this, but Shame strikes me as movie crying out for a religious conversion. Brandon is so mired in the muck of his own depravity that I don't see how human willpower alone will do him any good.

Perhaps McQueen feels the same way. In the film's final scene, Brandon catches a glimpse of the same redhead from the movie's opening. She looks more assertive, more willing than before, even though that ring is still on her finger. Brandon, for his part, appears to be in great pain, torn between two sides of himself. If he was hungry before, he looks ravenous now, but not for sex--for grace. 

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