Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie
Director: Steve McQueen
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A man. A woman. An underground train. Traded looks. Traded fantasies. No one looking. No one aware. The train stops. The lick of her lips. The ring on her finger. Will they? Won’t they? The crowd in the station.
The man is Brandon. We soon meet the rest of him. His job. His coldness. His naked body wrapped in blue sheets. His overpowering sexual impulse. Alleys. Back doors. Luxury hotels. His computer tracked off to clean porn. His apartment, appointed and neat, his first mask toward the world. The kind way to see him is as a ladies man. The less kind way is as a sex addict.
The premise of Steve McQueen’s highly sexual Shame, a rare recipient of an NC-17 rating, seems like a comedy, if it were played for any warmth. What if a sex addict’s hyper-controlled life of conquests, stimulation and disconnection crumbles when his gypsy sister needs a place to stay?
His sister wears crazy on her sleeve, but places it next to a welcoming heart. She wants him to unwind and return her love. He wants her to leave. There is a vibe in their relationship – aloof, dependent – that suggests the relationship of parents. If they ever had parents. They are orphans to the city.
Is Brandon a sociopath? He’s polite, accommodating, holds doors for prostitutes, but he shows little feeling for others. But he's not really a sociopath. It’s not an absence of emotion or empathy, but a fear of it. He feels connection as much as his sister, but distrusts it. He loathes the risk of emotional connection dragging him down. And this is one sensibility of Shame: love as a necessity even when it feels like a punishment.
The film’s money shot follows Brandon jogging down a street, fascinated with his stride, with beautiful casual lyricism. It’s a flashy shot. It draws attention. Yet much of Sean Bobitt’s best work delivers in small amounts. Brother and sister argue on the couch. The backs of their heads hide their emotion. The camera tilts as the power shifts in the conversation. Words. Tension. Clumps of hair.
McQueen relies on long takes of silence that leave the audience in a state of uncertainty. We are left to interpret the message. The style gives the actors space to breathe. Michael Fassbender uses it to suggest the emotion churn, a memorably chilly performance. As his sister, Carey Mulligan excels – her usual minimalist reserve gets to take her LooneyTunes gene out for a spin. Her heartbreaking performance of “New York, New York” (her character is a lounge singer) is one of the film’s lasting moments.
There really is a lot of sex in Shame – as much as I’ve seen in aggregate in six years of film writing. Yet it isn’t erotic in the least. Shame engages in sexual fantasy at the same time that it debases its eroticism, making it seem like pathetically wasted energy and a drying of the soul. It strikes me as the work of a married man. There’s a push-pull attraction to the liberating fantasy followed by the judgment that keeps us in line.
A man. A woman. An underground train. Traded looks. Traded fantasies. No one looking. No one aware. The train stops. The lick of her lips. The ring on her finger. Will they? Won’t they? She can leave it, stop it there, pack the bags and return to life. Can he?