Synopsis: “Driven by a brilliant and ferocious performance by Michael Fassbender,” (Hollywood Reporter) Shame tells the riveting story of Brandon, a handsome New York businessman with a dark and destructive secret. His solitary existence is shaken by the unexpected arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, An Education), another damaged soul who brings memories of a painful shared past. Graphic, highly provocative and undeniably powerful, “Shame is the most devastating and thought-provoking cinematic experiences of the entire year.” (Richard Roeper)
eyelights: the performances. the camera work.
eyesores: its emotional coldness.
“We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.”
‘Shame’ is a 2011 motion picture by Steve McQueen, the writer-director who exploded onto the scene in 2008 with ‘Hunger’. It stars Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan as siblings who use sex to deal with their attachment issues.
It’s a study of two broken individuals trying to deal with their personal demons in very different ways; she by reconnecting with her brother, and he by isolating himself. Neither can maintain a substantial romantic relationship.
‘Shame’ wasn’t on my radar. I barely knew of its existence and had no plan to ever see it. But it came recommended to me by a friend, who told me that some of its erotic scenes were burned into her mind. I should see it, she said.
And so I did.
The main focus of the picture is Brandon (Fassbender), a slick New York City executive whose life it tossed upside down when Sissy (Mulligan), the sister he’s been avoiding, intrudes into his life when she finds herself homeless.
Until then, he went through his daily routine of masturbating in the shower, trying to pick up women on his way to and from work, watching porn from his desk and at home, masturbating in the company bathroom, and paying for call-girls.
Now his privacy is thrown out the window – and his professional life is next.
He feels trapped. Not only is Sissy making a mess of his personal life, she’s also making a mess of his apartment. He only grudgingly goes to see her sing in a jazz bar with his boss – whom she proceeds to hook up with and take home.
She has no sense of boundaries, and even joins him in bed one night, wrapping her arms around him in a spooning position. Naturally, he’s upset, but the last straw comes when she bursts into the bathroom while he’s masturbating.
He makes the decision to change his life, to turn it around: He gets rid of all his porn, tosses out his sex toys, and even trashes his laptop. He decides to try to have a normal relationship with a woman he has his eye on at work.
But is turning the page as easy as that? Can he overcome his emotional boundaries?
And can he get past his troubled relationship with his sister?
It’s not quite clear what the problem between them is. We only know for sure that there is no one close to him in his life other than his sister – but he can barely tolerate her, and hypocritically chastises her for being promiscuous.
His disdain of her made me wonder if he saw her as a reflection of himself, if she reminded him of his own sexual proclivities, of which he is ashamed. Does she force him to confront his deep feelings of shame? Is that it?
Between that and the lack of boundaries between them (they see each other nude all the time, she slips into bed with him, she wants to snuggle with him on the couch), I also wondered if there was far more to their history together.
Had they had sexual encounters together in the past? Could that be why he’s unable to have natural sexual connections with others? Is that why he has to pay for sex, or hook up with strangers? Are the lines so blurred he has to define them?
I found ‘Shame’ pretty sad. While it revolves around sex, it is of the emotionally-barren variety, and the overpowering sense of shame and awkwardness that lies barely-concealed under Brandon’s surface creates a remove that wasn’t at all sexy.
Having said this, there were three moments that I actually found rather hot:
- First there was when he was on the subway and he and a stranger lock eyes. It was all about her response to him: although he was just fixating on her, doing not much else, she was slowly feeling the pull, smiling at him, squirming in her seat.
- There was also when he brought his colleague to a high-end hotel room for sex, and they start making out by the large window. That was pretty sexy. It was something about the way they genuinely appeared to dig each other. There was passion there.
- The last is when, in a moment of self-destruction, he goes to a pub and makes a play for a woman who comes ordering drinks at the bar – despite the fact that her boyfriend was playing pool near them. You could sense just how turned on she was.
Of course, all of those moments lost their edge for various reason, the first because he came off as a creep or a stalker, the second when they became too goal-oriented, and the last when the boyfriend arrived and a violent argument ensued.
The rest of the sex, however, to me, felt mechanical, pornographic (of the softcore variety), lacking that element that makes sex sizzles: connection. Brandon had sex with various call-girls and strangers, but there was only sensation, no passion.
But anyone looking for eye candy is well-served: the women are very attractive, and in various stages of undress, and Michael Fassbender lets it all hang out for all the world to see. Anyone looking for full-frontal is well-served here.
That wasn’t enough to turn me on. However, I really enjoyed this character study; there are no real answers here, and no redemption, but there’s a decent exploration of our protagonist’s problems – and that alone is worth the watch.
And then there are the performances as well: both Fassbender and Mulligan pull out all the stops. There’s this terrific scene when they have a confrontation on the couch, face-to-face, all in one six-and-a-half minute continuous take.
That was another reason to see ‘Shame’: McQueen has an eye for making the most out of his scenes. For instance, there’s a moment when Brandon goes for a run on New York’s empty city streets, late at night, all in one long continuous pan.
So, ultimately, though it was a bit heavy at times, ‘Shame’ is a very strong effort on the part of everyone involved. It explores human connection in a way that few movies do. Anyone fascinated by human behavviour will savour this fully.
There’s no shame in that.
Date of viewing: August 9, 2016