Saturday, December 10, 2011
A Look at "Shame" (This Review is Not for All Audiences)
Slapped with the controversial NC-17 rating (the cinematic equivalent of the scarlet letter), director Steve McQueen's indie drama, Shame, is not the lecherous, pornographic boinkfest the stigma implies (and some may have hoped); it's rather an elegant look at an insatiable sexual hunger so uncontrollable it's debased. The very core of the movie, in essence, is its own stigma.
Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a corporate businessman of some sort at an unknown company in New York City. As far as the audience knows, he has no real friends (unless you count his obnoxious boss, David), no hobbies, and no girlfriend. After an extraordinarily awkward date with his coworker Marianne (Nicole Beharie), we also learn he literally doesn't have the libido to get off on real relationships, with anyone.
By the looks of him (and we see a lot of him), he stays in pretty good shape, probably attributed to being a frequent runner, or his massive sexual drive. A sex drive consisting of, at its worst, prostitutes, seedy sex clubs, computer sex, threesomes, hourly masturbation, and multiple partners in one evening.
At first, Brandon just seems like, well, any other straight man living in New York City. With the overabundance of beautiful and successful women in the Big Apple, many men don't feel the need (or desire) to commit to one woman.
But Brandon's case is a little different. We meet him as he's coming to a crossroads about what his desires really mean. He is becoming ashamed of his sexual prowess. Or, he's embarrassed by what other people would think if they found out about it. This is heightened by his sister Sissy's unannounced arrival to town. Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who clings to her own set of problems as tightly as she clings to her feeble relationship with her brother, crashes at Brandon's apartment, disrupting his unnatural order, holding up a cruel mirror to his own face.
It doesn't help matters that these two siblings seem to be the only two people who understand and care about them, which alienates them--and their problems--from everyone else, and causes them to seem more stigmatic.
Cleverly written and beautifully portrayed, Shame is a sensitive look at sex and addiction we've rarely seen before in film. The movie is fueled by a heartbreaking performance by Fassbender, whose gentle depiction of a character in decay is so seductive it will take you off guard. His ability to convey so much emotion with very little dialogue captivating to watch. Mulligan is no slouch either in, finally, an emotionally present performance, which draws both pity and despair from the audience.
McQueen's sneaky camera angles (often shooting the actors from behind or from another room) only adds to the taboo nature of the story. You'll feel like you're eavesdropping on a deep ugly secret you shouldn't--or wouldn't want to--know about. Though we never really learn much about each character's background, we can still feel the bitter self-judgment each has, enough to know that their own disgust contains them. There is certainly nothing to be ashamed of for this cinematic accomplishment.