There have been numerous discussions and articles written about writer-director Steve McQueen’s Shame since its debut at the Venice Film Festival in late August – a good chunk of which has been devoted to the MPAA’s decision to slap the film with their restrictive “NC-17” rating because the film features several sequences of explicit nudity. The fact that Shame, an incredibly mature and thoughtful film about addiction and its effect on the human psyche, gets branded “NC-17” while exploitative and genuine artistically-anemic filth like Saw and The Human Centipede get away with the more liberal “R” rating is downright absurd. I mean, how could footage of two people engaging in consensual sex be more damaging than footage of people getting their eyes, limbs and other parts of their anatomy ripped out by chainsaws? The real tragedy of this rating hoopla is that in the end, five times as many people will have spent their money on Hostel than on Shame – a deeply powerful work which solidifies McQueen’s worth as a prodigious filmmaker as a well as actor Michael Fassbender’s place as our generation’s Daniel Day-Lewis.
Fassbender plays Brandon, an Irish-born New Yorker who has things that most men could only dream of having – he’s good looking, has a fierce intellect, a way with the ladies, a fantastic job, and a swanky apartment in Manhattan. But despite living in the most populous city in the nation and being gifted with keys to a successful life, he is a prisoner of a debilitating condition that keeps him from making a connection with anyone: he’s addicted to sex.
Before you mock this condition as a gift, here’s the gist: Brandon is so addicted to sex that his entire life is consumed by it. He masturbates at least five times a day, whether it’s in the shower or at work – it doesn’t matter, as long as he gets to do it. When he’s not doing that, he’s scouring porn, both at work and at home, or either pursuing random women at bars for one-night-stands or hiring hookers to satisfy his needs. When he can’t get lucky (which is rarely), he’s scurrying off to swinger clubs to find anyone or anything that’ll give him his fix. But the worst aspect of it all is that there cannot be any intimacy attached to the sex. This is a man who has become so emotionally detached from everything and everyone around him that he could be mistaken for an ice machine. When a woman he goes on a date with asks him how long his longest relationship was, he nonchalantly replies, “Four months” – and he disclaims that he tried his best.
This icy exterior is brought to full-fruition when Brandon’s alcoholic and emotionally unstable sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan – superb in a very uncharacteristic role), in town to perform at a classy lounge, pays him a surprise visit. From their tense first scene together, we suspect that there is something odd about their relationship – I mean, how often do you have a fight with your sister while she stands in front of you butt-naked? This weird relationship becomes all the more evident during a superb scene at a lounge where Brandon tears up as Sissy performs a somber rendition of “New York, New York.” Worse, her nagging behavior becomes a wrench in his daily routine and when he can’t have his time to himself, his world starts to crumble like an addict separated from his drug – especially during a scene where he loses his mind while hearing her having sex in his bedroom with a friend of his. And this is merely the beginning of a downward spiral that devolves into a self-destructive streak with no bottom in sight.
With Shame, McQueen, whose brutal debut film Hunger, also starring Fassbender, detailed the grueling hunger strike of IRA fighter Bobby Sands, once again takes us into the world of human suffering. Except this time, instead of physical suffering, it’s emotional turmoil. Like in Hunger, McQueen utilizes numerous long and uninterrupted cuts to draw us into the world of his characters – some of these arresting shots last well over five minutes. Not only is this striped-down, uncut style aesthetically pleasing (for me at least) but the fluidity enables us, the viewer, to become a consensual participant of the scene and thus, connects us to the characters. It helps that the film is a visual marvel with the city of New York being like a whole character in the film.
Playing a person like Brandon demands intense dedication and nakedness, emotionally and physically, to pull off convincingly – and in the wrong hands, could have been catastrophic but Fassbender, who is having a breakout year thanks to his excellent performances in Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class and A Dangerous Method, absolutely nails it. With barely speaking a word, he is able to portray the loneliness, suffering, intense conflict, frustration and shame Brandon is going through. It’s a raw and powerful performance that digs deep into some very uncomfortable places. He makes us feel Brandon’s battle and even sympathize with him as he resorts to the most desperate tactics to control his urges. It’s a masterpiece of acting – something I believe cements his status as one of the finest actors in the business.
Shame is a raw and unflinching portrait of addiction, loneliness and its disturbing effects on the human psyche. Featuring a wrecnhing performance from Michael Fassbender that may be the most emotionally naked performance I’ve seen from a performer this year, this movie that may not be for everyone but it’s something that needs to be seen by anyone interested in challenging cinema. Yes, there’s nudity and it’s a tough and sometimes grueling watch but this is a highly responsible and artistic picture that demands your attention.