Sunday, December 4, 2011

Review: "Shame"

I have not quite decided whether or not Steve McQueen is braver for writing and directing this courageous and introspective film, or if it is Michael Fassbender for valiantly bringing to life a man with a severe sexual addiction. Shame is both quietly disturbing and disturbingly graphic. There is a lot of sex in the film - including an extended scene towards the end - but McQueen balances this with quiet moments of personal reflection. Fassbender, who I first saw in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009), gives an astonishingly powerful performance that I would not have expected after seeing X-Men: First Class this past summer. Sexual addiction is so rarely depicted in film - certainly because of its adult nature - but as a culture we are more apt to accept promiscuity and adultery on its own. Shame received an NC-17 rating in the United States (18A in Canada), but the film's producers supported the director's vision and chose not to re-edit the film. I imagine the rating has more to do with full frontal male nudity than the graphic sex, but I am pessimistic about the kind of culture we live in where it is acceptable to see a woman naked, but seeing a penis is only for adults! Shame is dark and intense, and so few films are willing to be as realistic about sexual addiction. 2008's Choke, a film whose protagonist is a sex addict, is a comedy. Todd Solondz, one of the most polarizing directors working today (if not ever), uses very risque and taboo themes - such as pedophilia in Happiness (1998) - and his films are darkly funny but unrealistic. Shame reminds me of Leaving Las Vegas (1995) with a man heading destined for darkness who is unable to escape his self-imposed prison. Shame is tremendously well acted, with Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan giving raw and honest performances. It is a film that will jar and provoke you.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a 30 year old man living in New York, is a sex addict. He is constantly thinking about sex. He is constantly having sex with different women. Brandon has a high-paying job and is more than a competent employee, but his hard drive is full of porn and he often has to go masturbate in the washroom. He even watches porn while eating dinner at home. Things change when Brandon's sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up and begs to stay for a few days. The two have a very tense relationship, and it is hinted that their parents may no longer be alive. One minute they are laughing and joking, and suddenly Brandon becomes angry and violent. Sissy works as a lounge singer, and one night Brandon and David (James Badge Dale), his boss, watch her perform. David is married, but shamelessly flirts with Sissy and the two end up having sex in Brandon's bedroom. Brandon also begins seeing Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a girl at work, and she seems genuinely interested in him. With Sissy's presence in his life, Brandon begins losing his grasp on reality. Sissy and Brandon are so connected to each other, but they also provoke violent reactions.

I saw Shame with a very dear friend of mine. We had very different interpretations of the title, in its relation to the story. I feel that Brandon's shame is related to his sexual addiction, but she is more apt to believe that he is ashamed of his past feelings (or actions) for Sissy. I feel that the film had some incestuously thematic undertones, but that it is too under the surface for it to be the focus of his shame. I do, however, believe that the film's trailer heavily hinted at an incestuous relationship between Brandon and Sissy. I can only think of one recent English-language film that dealt heavily with incest: 1997's The House of Yes, starring Parker Posey, and again it is marketed as a comedy. I would not say that Shame is groundbreaking, but it frequently pushes the envelope of cinematic comfort. I was uncomfortable watching the film at certain times. Brandon enters a downward spiral and his compulsions are more immediate the sex more graphic. Interestingly, the most graphic and uncomfortable scene for me had nothing to do with sex! Michael Fassbender delivers a fantastic performance in this film. So many shots are focused on his face and his expressions. There is often little dialogue. Fassbender makes Brandon sympathetic. Brandon is a deplorable human being, but we want him to change and succeed. Shame explores some very dark themes with deft directorial skill. Michael Fassbender is brilliant as Brandon. We should hope that more directors and screenwriters challenge themselves to continue to make provocative films.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

No comments:

Post a Comment