[originally published April 25, 2012.]
Shame: Or, Feeling
I wouldn’t recommend sex, drugs or insanity for everyone, but they’ve always worked for me.
Hunter S. Thompson
A Commentary by Romy Shiller
BACKGROUND: Shame is a 2011 British drama film co-written and directed by Steve McQueen, starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. Shame was co-produced by Film4 and See-Saw Films. Shame’s explicit sexual scenes resulted in this film being rated NC17.
A New York-set portrait of sexual addiction. Another of the brightest-shining breakouts of the last few years, Carey Mulligan, joins them, for a script by British writer Abi Morgan, who’s also behind this winter’s “The Iron Lady.” Fassbender plays Brendan, a thirty-something working in Manhattan in some unspecified financial position. He’s a compulsively sexual creature, using hookers, picking up women from bars, masturbating in bathrooms, and continually surfing porn both at work and at home. But his lifestyle is turned upside down when his troubled, estranged sister Sissy (Mulligan), an aspiring singer, asks to crash at his apartment for a few days.
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan and James Badge Dale
What a visually stunning film. Disturbing but fabulous. People seem to be very preoccupied about determining if the main character is a sex addict or not. I am less concerned with this but see his obsession as a fascinating backdrop to an intense character study. I will just say this, people do all sorts of things to avoid pain, such as alcohol or drugs and anything taken to the extreme, that one cannot stop, is a problem.
The story involves a man [Fassbender as Brandon] who is obsessed with sex and how a visit from his sister [Mulligan as Sissy] compromises his carefully organized world. She seems to be a love-addict; he seems to be a sex-addict. He surfs for porn at home and at work [his boss calls his hard drive ‘filthy’], he has many porn magazines and sex toys, he hires various prostitutes … She leaves a tearful, desperate phone message for an ex-lover and another message for a one-night stand. How brother and sister relate to each other is complex. Brandon’s relationship to the people around him tells us much about who he is.
The shots are so unusual here, so stunning; ‘People go on about those long scenes,’ McQueen says, ‘but it’s not doing something for a trick or gimmick – it’s about doing what’s necessary. Why cut? If you have a close-up and what you’re getting is incredible, stay with it, look at it. It’s about what actually works. The fact is, it’s exciting. There’s film time, and there’s real time. These happened in real time and that’s exciting. You’re putting an audience in a situation that feels like reality.’
Often the camera is static and the actors are shot from behind – you see their faces in profile. The choice to privilege alternate, even uncomfortable viewing is so without ego and truly foregrounds a scene. If the subject-matter of the whole film is alternate or uncomfortable then the camera work mirrors that feeling. The sense of isolation and the lack of true intimacy is captured by the camera’s unmotivated presence.
McQueen and Fassbender reunite here after making Hunger  together. The steely blue tinge given to New York by DoP Sean Bobbitt (once more doing excellent work) seemingly picked to match and complement the Irish-German actor’s [Fassbender] eyes.
It is Fassbender’s film, but every character is complex and is a study. The boss, Brandon’s sister, his date – all have realities and motives that could easily make up an entire film.
His sister has scars on her forearm from when she used to cut herself. People cut to feel. Brandon does not feel anything emotional during sex but his sister’s singing makes him cry and he gets angry with her. She makes him feel. While his obsession, sex, lacks feeling – he resonates profoundly with deep feeling.
Brandon’s home-environment and his clothing reek with sterility and precision but he is internally a mess. He looks flawless, ordered and excessively stylish.
The people who are visually more unkempt are more real, like his date. She is used to long, committed relationships and had been married. His boss is geeky but has a family. These two are great dressers but much less formal than Brandon. His sister is damaged and she dresses sloppily. When she preforms she looks fabulous. This is a clue…Brandon’s whole life is a performance.
One style blogger commented, costume-design awards tend to go to the woman that makes Johnny Depp look most insane each year, there’s something to be said for a great performance while wearing a nice wardrobe — glen plaid overcoats, corporate hair that doesn’t reek of gel, all those damn scarves — that conveys a character, but also offers solutions for how men might want to dress as they get ready for work and go on dates (or, you know, sex binges).
The sex-scenes and full frontal nudity are not shocking nor are they gratuitous. Everything honours the story. Frankly, the narrative would be less effective without them. From what I heard I expected porn but the honesty here superseded that. I think that it is very important to recognize this film as distinct from Brandon’s reality, which involves the fakeness of pornography.
The acting is superb by every actor. The long takes kept them in the moment and very close to their character. Either they knew their lines extremely well or they improvised. The wonder of watching “Shame” is the number of painfully raw and honest moments British director Steve McQueen captured in this 100-minute film. That is mostly thanks to phenomenal acting by Michael Fassbender…and Carey Mulligan, as his equally troubled sister. The two descend to some deep, black recesses of the soul as we watch their push-pull relationship and the fairly tortured way they move through the world.
This film was completely ignored at the Oscars. Calum Marsh of Slant Magazine says, One of last year’s best but most woefully misunderstood films, Shame gets a Blu-ray exemplary enough to warrant a second look. I completely agree. The blu-ray will be released on May 14, 2012 in the UK.