Review: Steve McQueen’s ‘Shame’ is simply a spectacular work of art

TELLURIDE – A remarkable snapshot of the perils of sexual compulsion in the modern world, Steve McQueen’s new drama “Shame” is simply a spectacular work of art.  The film debuted almost simultaneously at the Venice and Telluride Film Festivals Sunday.

Set exclusively in Manhattan, “Shame” begins with a shot of Brandon (Michael Fassbender) lying on his bed, sheet draped over his lower torso starring ahead at the viewer almost in a daze.  We quickly learn that the seemingly successful thirtysomething (we are never exactly sure what his profession is) spends almost all of his free time looking for sexual release. It can be with a hooker, traditional porn, masturbating in a workplace toilet, a random hook up or via a web cam. When not with his business colleagues it clear he does nothing else.  And, conveniently, New York is a fine urban smorgasbord for his inclinations.  Take note, however, Brandon is not living in some sort of modern sexual paradise.  He hardly seems happy or to truly enjoy his endeavors.  It’s a shame he internalizes, but cannot discard.  His daily frustration increases when his only sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) appears on his doorstep looking for a place to crash.

Brandon and Sissy have a complex relationship that’s only implied at during the picture.  A promising singer, Sissy has visible scars on her arms from cutting herself when she was younger (or so we’re told).  Brandon isn’t just disturbed that her presence affects his sexual routine.  There is an underlying conflict from the past that is at work here as well.  Were both victims of abuse?  Why are their parents never mentioned?  Why is Sissy so emotional and attached while Brandon is reserved and unaffectionate?  We never learn the exact answers to these questions because to McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan (the upcoming “The Iron Lady”) aren’t looking to justify their protagonists current mental states.  These are just people like the rest of us, we just might not see their afflictions in the every day world.  In many ways, it’s the most chilling observation the filmmakers make in “Shame.”

McQueen background in cinematic art films is a huge and positive influence on his overall aesthetic in this narrative exercise.  Unlike other filmmakers, he’s not afraid to hold on a long shot, but isn’t being intentionally pretentious in doing so either.  In one startling and moving scene on a subway, McQueen takes a risk by sampling Hans Zimmer’s score from “A Thin Red Line” (“Journey to the Line”) instead of using original music.  On his way to work, Brandon has eyed as beautiful blond woman across the car (relatively unknown Lucy Walters).  She notices his starring and at first is flattered, but then slowly becomes disturbed and uncomfortable by his gaze.  As she stands to exit the subway McQueen focuses on her hand on the metal pole and the audience sees her wedding ring.  Brandon quickly stands behind her still thinking he has an opportunity of a score.  As the car doors open, she dashes through the crowd attempting to escape the situation and the music swells as an obsessed Brandon continues to run after her only to lose her at the top of the station.  It’s an absolute knockout of a sequence all around, but also moving because this is when the audience first realizes how unaware Brandon can be of his actions in the real world.

Unlike Fassbender’s role as Carl Jung inDavid Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” (also screened at Telluride), a man who represses himself due to society’s demands at the time, Brandon is a powder keg of sexual energy.  Fassbender demonstrates Brandon’s need to control his addictive desires by depicting him as quiet and intentional in his movements and actions as possible.  That’s not to infer Brandon seems shy, but he’s not the charismatic ladies man one might assume of someone with his compulsions. 

Like his previous work with McQueen in “Hunger,” Fassbender bares it all in what seems more like a natural and necessary artistic collaboration than titillating eroticism.  And a point must be made that while beautifully shot the sexual scenes in the film aren’t always intended to be erotic for the viewer.  In fact, the picture may contain the saddest sex scenes in recent memory.  A key moment finds Brandon rapturously entranced with his compulsions while in the middle of a gluttonous three-way with two ladies (after already being serviced by a man in the film’s only hint of whether Brandon will switch sides).  Fassbender demonstrates his character’s anguish over what he’s actually doing in a haunting moment McQueen expertly catches. He’s been superb in films such as “Inglorious Basterds,” “Fish Tank” and even “X-Men: First Class,” but this is absolutely Fassbender’s finest work to date.

As for Mulligan, the former Academy Award nominee continues to surprise this summer.  Her work in “Never Let Me Go” was solid, but wasn’t much of a thematic stretch from “An Education.”  With her quietly poignant turn in “Drive” and, now, “Shame” she’s living up to the hype.  Sissy is a character unlike any other she’s played before and Mulligan complete inhabits her wild and wounded side.  When she sings a bluesy cover of “New York New York” accompanied by just piano, you believe her striking voice could actually cause Brandon to shed a tear.  The role screams of awards accolades and should be a big heads up to other filmmakers that Mulligan is not your typical talented British ingenue.

In a perfect world, “Shame” would  be the sort of film moviegoers, the guilds and the Academy would embrace either  this year or next.  The intense sex scenes and nudity, however, make one question whether that might be to difficult a dream to pull off.  And quite honestly, that’s neither here nor there.   “Shame” is clearly one of the best films of the year and deserves the opportunity to find an audience who will appreciate McQueen’s achievement.  Let’s hope that’s the case.

“Shame” will also screen at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival beginning next week.

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