British director Steve McQueen's Shame stars Michael Fassbender as Brandon, a Manhattan executive whose handsome visage and polished appearance mask serious psychosexual issues. He masturbates obsessively at home and in the restrooms at work, owns hundreds of hardcore pornographic magazines and videos, spends evenings in webcam sessions with hookers, and...read more
British director Steve McQueen's Shame stars Michael Fassbender as Brandon, a Manhattan executive whose handsome visage and polished appearance mask serious psychosexual issues. He masturbates obsessively at home and in the restrooms at work, owns hundreds of hardcore pornographic magazines and videos, spends evenings in webcam sessions with hookers, and occasionally picks up women for quick, mechanical sex. Emotional sterility rules Brandon's life -- it's as though an impenetrable shield surrounds his heart. And when his younger sister, professional musician Sissy (Carey Mulligan), reaches out to him with a series of desperate answering-machine messages, he consciously ignores them. Eventually, she crashes his apartment in order to get his attention, barging into his life as an uninvited houseguest.
Shame comes billed as a study of sexual addiction, but that only identifies the surface-level concept of the movie. The film may be wall-to-wall with nudity and sexual activity, but it lacks titillation. The intercourse presented isn't lush, gentle, erotic lovemaking, but the animalistic sex of desperation -- carnal acts committed by a miserable man trapped within himself. As a result, the film meditates, profoundly, on loneliness and isolation. One of its most-revelatory moments arrives in a hotel room, when Brandon tries unsuccessfully to make love to a co-worker -- failing to get an erection -- and then roughly screws a hooker in the same room merely an hour or so later. This character lacks the ability to impart any romantic emotion to sex -- that capacity was stripped away long ago.
The brother-sister relationship is also central to the character's pathology, in complex and elusive ways that only gradually become apparent. McQueen is too sophisticated and too intelligent to present the scenario that one might anticipate, in which Sissy tries to "save" Brandon from his psychosis. That never happens -- she's every bit as emotionally damaged as he is, although she channels it in a very different way: If he's hermetically sealed, she's effusive, vulnerable, and raw. The union of these two personalities makes the movie endlessly fascinating by giving it numerous psychological and emotional layers, especially given the fact that Sissy seems to be the only individual capable of generating tender feelings or any vulnerability in Brandon.
Though Fassbender delivers an excellent portrayal, particularly given his ability to put up a steel-tough façade and let moments of fleeting sensitivity cascade through, it is Mulligan who walks away with the movie. Her work peaks in an early sequence set in a nightclub, where Sissy performs the theme from New York, New York before Brandon and his boss. In lieu of interpreting it at the traditional pace, she sings slowly and desperately, crying out for validation. It's the type and level of performance that Pauline Kael described Marlon Brando giving on stage, when she mistook him for an actor having a seizure and had trouble watching him because she felt so embarrassed by his nakedness. Mulligan has the same effect here, and as a result, many audience members will instinctively recoil. As exemplified by this sequence, the entire performance demonstrates stunning emotional courage, and, like An Education and Never Let Me Go, Shame asserts Mulligan as one of the most-gifted actresses now working.
In the final analysis, Shame is perhaps most impressive for the kind of risk-taking that it represents. This is edgy, provocative material, not because of the abundance of graphic sex that earned it an NC-17 rating, but because of something that makes it even less suitable for young viewers: its willingness to plunge into the dark heart of one man's despair and emptiness without flinching. The film could have gone awry in a number of different ways, growing either silly, boring, naive, pretentious, or a combination of the above. The fact that it both retains its credibility and will succeed at breaking many viewers’ hearts serves as a lingering testament to McQueen's ability to navigate complex emotional waters onscreen.
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