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Review: Shame

Fassbender is a winner in the Shame game
By PETER KEOUGH  |  December 7, 2011
3.0 3.0 Stars

Director Steve McQueen has only made two films, but in them he explores two extremes of human experience. On the one hand, he depicts the denial of appetite in Hunger (2008), where Michael Fassbender portrays hunger-striking IRA terrorist Bobby Sands. And on the other hand, he confronts total indulgence in his starkly beautiful, sometimes schematic film Shame, once again starring Fassbender, who here plays Brandon, a corporate drone and rampant sex addict.

>> INTERVIEWSteve McQueen puts the MPAA ratings system to Shame <<

The funny thing is that Fassbender, brilliant in both films, seems like he's having a better time starving to death and smearing his feces on a cell wall in Hunger than he does getting it on in Shame. The MPAA gave the film an NC-17 rating, but as Bret Easton Ellis recently tweeted, maybe if Brandon had some fun with his problem, the film would have been more truly disturbing.

It's the kind of fun, presumably, enjoyed by Ellis's own Wall Street degenerate, Patrick Bateman, as performed by Christian Bale in Mary Harron's exuberantly nihilistic adaptation of American Psycho (2000). Give that man a chainsaw and a naked woman, and he sure could party. By contrast, Brandon doesn't kill anyone, but he does masturbate a lot; when he sneaks into the bathroom, it's not to do a line. He also hires hookers and picks up married women on the subway. But is he happy? Of course not. Shame on you, Brandon.

A better comparison might be Brando's depressive lecher Paul in Last Tango in Paris (1972). In Tango, however, Paul briefly achieves some intimacy with another human being, though anonymously. Shame is Bertolucci for the Internet age, as Brandon aspires to achieve intimacy with just one person — himself — and fails.

Maybe that's because his sister, struggling chanteuse and professional mooch Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who has a lot more problems besides her unfortunate name and her fragile singing style, challenges his solitude. She shows up uninvited and naked in Brandon's shower, where she and her brother discuss the situation at length. Here and elsewhere McQueen is a master of extending a scene well beyond the point where things get uncomfortable.

Is there an incestuous backstory being hinted at, none too subtlely? Whatever the reason, Sissy is as much a mess as Brandon, though in a different way. Needy and suicidal, she seems to be a nymphomaniac driven by a bottomless pit of dependency, as opposed to the compulsive aversion to emotional commitment that seems to fuel her brother's satyriasis. Opposite and alike, they don't get along; let's just say there's a lot of nudity and yelling and smashing things, and dialing 911 often seems like a good option.

McQueen doesn't go much below the surface in analyzing the obsessive, doomed conduct of his characters. When Sissy says they are not bad people but come from a bad place, you wonder if she means New Jersey. This generic approach weakens the film, though McQueen's reasoning might be that instead of burdening viewers with details, it leaves them a blank screen on which they can project their own feelings of isolation.  

>> INTERVIEWSteve McQueen puts the MPAA ratings system to Shame <<

Those feelings are easy to muster given McQueen's Manhattan: it's all glass, asphalt, steel, fern bars, and anomie, with scarcely a glimpse at anything from nature. But his greatest asset is Fassbender's face, his gaunt "Neanderthal" (Brandon's word) features mirroring a despair and ecstasy too deep for words. Ultimately, Fassbender's characters in both Hunger and Shame share the same expression, a tormented fusion of satyr and saint.

Related: Review: The Five-Year Engagement, Review: Dark Shadows, Review: The Dictator, More more >
  Topics: Reviews , Synopsis, NC-17, scene,  More more >
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