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A note on Shame

I stood with Bianchi and The Wife outside the Chinese Theater in a stand-by line for Shame during the AFI Fest and we didn’t get in.  I was pissed but we calmed ourselves at 25 Degrees, a delicious burger joint in the lobby of the Roosevelt. Weeks later I had a chance to catch the film at the ArcLight, but alas, The Wife was called into work that night and I was home with Boston. But now, as I’m working with the Academy Awards, we get the added perk of a box full of DVD screeners we can sign out for a night at a time.  And for last weekend’s viewing pleasure I finally got my hands on Shame, the beautiful and heart-wrenching tale of a man addicted to sex. To say the least I have been anticipating this movie. When expectations get this high it is difficult to satisfy them.

Shame warrants a discussion on art versus pornography, which I already addressed in my review of AntiChrist so revisit that article and get back here. My feelings on the subject remain unchanged with Shame, where we get another director as fearless as Von Trier (with less crazy) who miraculously gains so much trust and respect from his actors he could probably lead them off a cliff. Steve McQueen (not the manly man from The Getaway) has certainly proven himself a director with tight control over his characters, actors and camera.  People often praised Capra as having a “classic control” over every shot in his films and McQueen shares that ability. However, where Capra explored the virtue and optimism of man, McQueen explore man’s darkest vices and the extreme limits of being.

Brandon (played by Michael Fassbender who collaborated with McQueen on Hunger) is a sex-addict who lives a life of dedicated routine, so much so it would seem he’s addicted to his daily process. He’s successful, handsome and he gets any women he wants. He sometimes buys sex, other times he picks up women in bars, restaurants, the office or on the subway. He is hardly a character I cared anything about. As The Wife said, “so this is just a guy going around having a lot of sex? What’s the point?” Touche, wife, touche. If we intellectualize it, that may be the conclusion McQueen wanted us to draw. There is no point to this life. But as a visceral response as an audience member, I couldn’t get engaged. When his sister, Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan), arrives there is this spark of interest. There is an opportunity to find out something deeper about this man, insight into his behavior or reasons for this apparent animosity toward his sister. But no. Not until Brandon watches Sissy perform a heartbreaking arrangement of “New York New York” do I feel any connection with the characters or have any emotional response.








Mulligan’s performance was captured in real time with three cameras, no other shots were necessary. Sissy takes the stage in a close up and sings “New York New York” as a morose dirge that evokes a sense of longing and loss. The lyrics say “I want to be king of the hill, top of the heap,” about a person ready to conqueror this asphalt jungle that is NY. But I don’t believe Sissy. The arrangement turns her into a dishonest performer; she’s lying to us. She doesn’t want to fight her way to the top, she hasn’t the fight left in her. She wants support and comfort and she’s asking for it to come from her brother across the room. She’s singing to him, not New York. Just like that we start to understand this complicated and tortured relationship, something full of pain and rejection and abandonment. It’s the first glimpse of complexity in Brandon’s character and it is revealed without dialogue, without a flashback. Their history manifests itself into a single tear that streaks down Brandon’s cheek conjured up by a performances so overwrought with melancholy I almost cried myself. What? I can admit it, I don’t need to protect my masculinity, I’ll fight you.

McQueen returns the trust actors have in him by trusting them to carry the burden of the scene.  A film student would have shot that performance from 15 angles with an extreme close-up on Fassbender’s tear and Mulligan’s lips out of fear their actor’s couldn’t provide the emotion needed to illicit the appropriate response form the audience. But get fearless actors with a fearless director and you can allow scenes to play out. Which brings us to the sex scene between Brandon and Marianne (played by Nicole Beharie).

If there is any person Brandon wants to have a connection with, one person to ease his loneliness, it’s Marianne; she’s the co-worker he has been coveting. Everything about their relationship feels authentic and comfortable. Their date is one long take at the restaurant table and at the end of the night he does not have sex with her. Like in Jazz, the note not played resonates the most.  Once the physical activity does start up in their relationship it is again covered in one long take.  Unlike sex Brandon had with the other girls, this had an honest pace and progression that was natural. It was conversation leading to kissing, caressing, gradual undressing; it was the intimate, personal sex of a couple in a relationship. And he remains flaccid, asking her to leave in his humiliation. Perhaps he didn’t want to involve her in this self-destructive cycle.

Mr. Dill would lecture that in film every frame derives its meaning from the frames that precede it; therefore through comparison, the final sex scene creates in us a different attitude toward coitus. Brandon enters an apartment without a word and then immediately engages in lurid sex. It’s composed of tight shots, cut so quickly you don’t know which body parts belong to whom – it is easily the most explicit scene in the film. We hold on one shot for the longest period of time. It’s Brandon who begins to cry, out of what I assume, is shame.  There is something unreal, disconnected and emotionless about this sex scene that is created on how McQueen shoots and edits the scene together.  And it’s even more impersonal because we got the scene earlier that felt some familiar.

The opening of the film works as a sort of prologue, introducing us to Brandon. Then we get a bookend.  He travels on the subway and draws the flirtatious stare of a married woman sitting across from him.  She becomes uncomfortable and flees before the flirtation can go further (all done with suggestive glances and no dialogue).  At the end of the film the same married woman appears, she’s ready and willing this time around. Brandon just looks up at her, they make eye contact and then we cut out. With the tragedy his addiction help bring upon him in the past few days, has he reformed? Will he fall into temptation? It’s the sort of ending and elaborate character study that is brilliant for the avid art-house film lover, I’m sure it will get them aroused intellectually as well as sexually. And I myself am one of those art-house regulars so this certainly satisfied my intellectual needs, however, the unwavering attention to detail as a character study got me thinking my way through most of the film and only getting emotional involved in a few scenes. And what I was hoping for was something that satisfied both, like Hunger did for me. Fassbender, McQueen and Mulligan are the best in the business, they do awe-inspiring work, this just could not catch up to all I was anticipating.

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