Shame (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.-U.K.: Steve McQueen, 2011 (20th Century Fox)
There have always been lots of movies that show or exploit sex, but far fewer that try to explore it seriously, as a rich, meaningful subject, whether psychological or social. And there’s only a handful of that few that try to portray it artistically and seriously and realistically. Among them, of course, are Bernardo Bertolucci‘s Last Tango in Paris, and Nagisa Oshima‘s In the Realm of the Senses — and now, Steve McQueen’s Shame.
Shame, rated NC-17 (like Senses), contains copious amounts of nudity, and numerous simulations (I guess) of sexual acts. It’s not really an erotic movie though, and I‘m not being coy when I say that. this film, whatever McQueen shows us, is not a turn-on, or intended as one, in the usual sexy-movie sense. While not obviously moralistic, it’s quite serious about exploring the psychological and social contexts of its characters, as much as it explores their bodies. It’s a story about a man intensively and obsessively involved in loveless sex, and it gets into the what and the why as well as the sexual mechanics.
Writer-director Steve McQueen (a London-born painter unrelated to the late movie star), also made the 2006 Hunger, a remarkable portrait of the famed Bobby Sands IRA hunger strike, also starring Shame‘s Michael Fassbender as Sands. And he’s made Shame a movie about something more dramatically interesting than usual: a fresco of the high-rolling life of a sex addict in high-living Manhattan, in the present day — Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender), whose joyless pursuit of conquests and orgasms is about to hurl him off an emotional cliff.
Brason, who works in some unspecified (I thought) corporate job that apparently rewards him munificently without requiring much visible work, prowls in the evening (and sometimes in the day) for sex, by himself or with companions like his nervous boss David Fisher (James Badge Dale). He’s amazingly successful, without expending much visible effort — perhaps because he looks like Michael Fassbender and doesn‘t have to. (Fisher expends lots, and strikes out, at least when we see him — with Brandon effortlessly scooping up his boss’s failures.).
Unencumbered by marriage or any kind of long-term relationship (one of his longest apparently lasted several months), Brandon pursues sex as a sport, a routine, an obsession. He seduces women (and once, a man) almost constantly during the course of the film, but his passions, while apparently unslakable, also seem joyless and unsatisfying. I can’t recall a single smile crossing Brandon’s mouth, or a single joke passing his lips (if there were, they were lonely), or much tenderness at all, during the course of the movie. When he has one extremely attractive and plausible partner, his warm, smart and nice co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie), he’s unable to follow through.
Meanwhile, some of his past conquests keep leaving him pleading or testy phone-mail messages, which he never answers. And boss Fisher complains about all the porn he has stored on his computer.
It’s as if Brandon has become consumed by some kind of half-insane copulation rites, trapped in a perpetual orgasm machine, a routine that has emptied out most of the rest of his life — except whatever it is he does for a living. (That “job” seems to involve large offices with high window views of downtown Manhattan, as well as conferences and “pitches.”) And he pursues that nonstop pleasure with a monastic fervor, as if his pickups and hookups were part of some quasi-religious ritual flagellation ceremony. One could see all this as a figment of McQueen’s overheated imagination, but the movie feels plausible if extreme, coolly told, examined, not exploitive. Shame was extensively researched by McQueen and his co-writer Abi Morgan, who scripted the excellent British family drama Brick Lane, as well as a successful play called — the thing Brandon lacks — “Tender.” Shame’s models, McQueen says were other addiction movies like The Lost Weekend and The Man With the Golden Arm.
Like Frank Sinatra’s Frankie Machine or Ray Milland’s literary souse Don Birnam, Fassbender‘s Brandon, for all his seeming erotic success, also seems a prisoner of his own excess and addiction. He’s locked into a tightly ordered, repetitive existence that leaves little or no room for human interaction or human warmth or human need (embodied in the endless string of phone mails left by his pleading or testy former partners).
Into that rigid, obsessive, mechanical routine, comes probably the most damaged and lost and needy woman in Brandon’s life: his dysfunctional singer-actress sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Sissy pops up in his shower one night, she has no place to go, and she asks him for a bed. He‘s a bastard and he tells her to leave. But she stays and that’s the story: the effect that his needy sister has on his self-obsessed life.
Midway though this movie, Carey Mulligan absolutely shattered me. Sissy and Brandon and David are at one of those chi-chi little Manhattan restaurant-bars where the yuppies flock and sip and munch, and where Sissy has gotten a job singing. We’ve seen mostly her somewhat shallow, annoying sides, as well as the contempt her brother throws at her. (Why? The movie never tells us).
But now she goes to work, gives us her money stuff — singing a slow lounge blues version of Kander and Ebb’s “New York, New York,“ treating it not as the upbeat anthem that Sinatra or Liza Minnelli always made of it, but slowed down like the young Barbra Streisand slowed down “Happy Days are Here Again” — turning it into an ironic torch song of almost unbearable, excruciating melancholy, a dirge of whole boulevards of broken dreams pitched somewhere between Roy Orbison‘s “Crying“ and Judy Garland’s The Man That Got Away“ and Sinatra’s ”One for My Baby“ — the way Sarah Vaughan might have slowed this song down, if she were as racked with pain as Billie Holiday emerging from some haze of heroin and loss.
Shot by McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt close up in a single take (as I remember), Mulligan as Sissy truly breaks your heart with this song. Where, you wonder, did this seemingly shallow, seemingly floozy-like, near-wreck of a girl-woman Sissy, someone seemingly near the end of their tether, find such rich, deep emotions? How did she sculpt that familiar song with such love and art and grief? Singing the line “I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps,“ it’s as if she knows somehow, or suspects, that when she does fall asleep, she‘ll never wake up again, and “New York, New York” is the last song she’ll ever sing. At the end of the ballad, there‘s a tear rolling down her mean brother’s cheek, and although some have dismissed that reaction shot as a moment of sentimental cliché, I though it was right, and not just because tears were rolling down my face too. That tear for Sissy is what Shame is all about.
Lots of people have been talking about this scene. And they should: It’s one of the most memorable sequences in any movie this year, and by itself, it should vault Mulligan into the thick of any decent supporting actress Oscar race. I wish McQueen had written her even more scenes like this one — there are a few that are close — or that he and others will do it for her in the future. The role she plays here is off-type, a departure — deliberately, McQueen says — from the somewhat demure and intellectual “English rose” roles she‘s played in movies like An Education. She’s an English rose all right, and an English angel, but also, as she shows here, something more incendiary and soulful.
Shame fools us. It’s raunchy and raw, but in a strange, cool way, and it shows us the traps of hedonism as well as the flesh, and it puts Brandon through the wringer he deserves. This has been Fassbinder‘s year – he also starred in A Dangerous Method as Carl Jung and X-Men: First Class as Magneto and Jane Eyre as Rochester — but Shame is probably one of the movies he’ll probably be most remembered for. It’s a daring performance because it’s so easy to make jokes about it, since the star spends so much time in the nude, with partners, but without smiling, stripping down physically, but, until the end, keeping himself armored emotionally. It’s as if nudity were his own kind of psychic formal wear, and sex his own private garden party. Meanwhile, Sissy’s mournful “New York, New York” keeps echoing in our ears.
So, it’s Mulligan’s moment too. But it’s McQueen’s as well. He does an amazing job. Not perfect, mind you. I don’t think Shame ends all that well, and I think it needs more of Sissy. (She’s perfect though, especially when she sings.) But, with Hunger, and now with Shame, McQueen has shown that he‘s a real artist, with a real eye, and a deft hand, and a real heart as well. A cool one maybe, but it beats.
Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender. From The New York Times