NYFF 2011: Shame: Adrift in the City That Never Sleeps

This review originally appeared on Capital New York.

“We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place,” says Sissy (Carey Mulligan) to her brother Brandon (Michael Fassbender).

That “bad place” is never made explicit in Steve McQueen’s latest feature, Shame, detailing the numbing routine of a sex-addicted bachelor in Manhattan, but the results are clear in the self-destructive behavior of the siblings. There’s a lot of graphic sex in Shame, which may attract most of the attention from audiences and critics, but survived trauma pulses beneath the film like unacknowledged buzzing radio static. McQueen is not interested in “why” Sissy and Brandon are the way they are; he wants to examine how trauma and addiction play out in the everyday lives of those afflicted. There is a lot of repetition in Shame, showing Brandon’s narcotized-by-sex routine.

McQueen’s camera is sometimes restless, sometimes stationary. He is a visual artist, melding content to form. No shot is static, no space is unexplored for its visual properties. He often lets scenes play out in one long take, giving the event onscreen an almost uncomfortable sense of immediacy. Brandon goes out for a restless jog one night where he runs across five New York avenues, the camera following along with him the entire way. McQueen’s shots have tension in them. McQueen started out (and still is) an artist, photographer, and sculptor. He understands the relationship between objects and space.

This is the second collaboration for McQueen and Fassbender, the first one being 2008’s Hunger, detailing the 1981 hunger strikes in Ireland, in which a literally starving Fassbender plays the first hunger striker to die, Bobby Sands. It was a standout performance and got Fassbender the attention he required. He had been working for some time with no breakthrough. Hunger was it.

In Shame, he looks eerily like Ted Bundy, cleancut, handsome, remote, an elegant scarf around his neck. He lives in a highrise apartment which isn’t too palatial: living room, kitchen, bedroom. It’s not one of those alienating unrealistic New York apartments so often seen in movies. He has a record player, lots of vinyl, a bookshelf (I noticed Don DeLillo’s Underworld on the shelves), but other than that its decoration and furnishings are sparse.

He has a routine. He goes to work, he takes mid-morning masturbation breaks in the men’s room, he comes home, he loses himself in Internet porn, he hires prostitutes, sometimes he goes out and circulates, finding girls who are willing to get to business immediately. He is successful in his sexual pursuits, in direct contrast to his married boss, David (James Badge Dale). Throughout the opening sequence, there are increasingly annoyed messages on his answering machine from the same woman: “Brandon, pick up. Pick up. Pick up. Pick up. Pick up.”

This is not a scorned lover, but his sister Sissy, an aspiring singer who needs a place to crash. When she shows up in his apartment unexpectedly, he allows her to stay for a couple of days. Their relationship is twitchy and awkward, with Sissy insisting on a closeness for which Brandon seems incapable. But there’s something about siblings. Siblings knew you when. Brandon’s defenses lower with Sissy, and she is the catalyst bringing his awareness to the pathological nature of his relationship to intimacy roaring to the forefront of his consciousness.

This all is a bit contrived. Shame is contrived.

Brandon and his boss go to see Sissy sing in a swank nightclub with a panorama of the New York skyline in the background. It is unclear how Sissy, obviously a mess, and not much of a singer, would get such a high-end gig. Sissy performs a slow (verrrry slow) version of “New York New York”, sung in a quavering earnest voice, and McQueen’s camera stays on her in deep closeup. It’s brutal. He finally alternates to a closeup of Brandon listening to her sing. As the camera lingers on Fassbender, a transformation comes over his face, tears welling up in his eyes. Nothing we have seen of him up until now could prepare us for this. After the song, it is as though none of it happened. Brandon coolly tells Sissy that her performance was “interesting”. (It wasn’t.) Brandon’s boss David is far more complimentary and Sissy ends up fucking David that night, in Brandon’s bed, as Brandon sits in the living room, listening, curled up against the wall in an agony of repressed feeling.

In these moments we feel empathy for Brandon, whose behavior is mostly monstrous. But let’s not forget the title of the movie. Brandon never speaks out his shame, but you can see it in his dealings with his boss, who had to replace Brandon’s computer at work because it was “filthy” with viruses from porn, and with the flirtation he has going on with a pretty coworker, played by Nicole Beharie. Brandon and Marianne go out on a date, and the entire date plays out in one take. It is uncomfortable to watch. Brandon has no idea how to be on a date.

McQueen is notorious for his love of long takes, and Hunger included a 17-minute take showing a conversation between Bobby Sands and his priest in Long Kesh prison. A 17-minute take is nearly unheard of, and the date scene in Shame is almost as long.

The invasion of Sissy into Brandon’s space as well as the flirtation with Marianne cracks Brandon’s facade. He throws out all of his porn in a frenzy. He tries to make love to Marianne and then, horrifying for him, he can’t. He speaks to no one about any of this. Although he is a libertine, he is disturbed by Sissy’s similar tendencies, and feels the need to protect her. In yet another long-take scene, the two have an eye-to-eye confrontation, with a volcano of unexpressed history beneath it.

Fassbender is charming, pained, deadened, and surprisingly tender in Shame. It would be easy to judge Brandon. I don’t. I’m just glad I’m not him.

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