A New Look at New York
Movie Review: "SHAME"
Published: Thursday, December 8, 2011
Updated: Friday, December 16, 2011 18:12
Most great New York movies adore – or rather, in many cases they fetishize - the city that never sleeps. Not "SHAME." Steve McQueen's follow-up to his art-house hit "HUNGER" (a great film in its own right, but perhaps more notable now for introducing Michael Fassbender to the national conversation) is a portrait of New York City as a dungeon of perverted sexuality and inescapable temptation. Rather than approach the themes of the ‘benchmark' NYC directors – Scorsese, Lee, Allen, et al – McQueen infuses the film with his decidedly arty touch, evoking the visually driven, character focused works of Robert Bresson more than any of the aforementioned filmmakers. And while Fassbender's portrayal of Bobby Sands in "HUNGER" depicted a man who sought to find freedom even while imprisoned, "SHAME" finds his character Brandon imprisoned by addiction even while having access to any possible need.
We come to learn Brandon through the first reel, watching him go through his day-to-day actions with an almost shockingly mundane demeanor (the incredibly understated, almost silent performance by the lead is another evocation of the Bresson aesthetic, for what it's worth.) He wakes up with an expression not undeserving of a corpse, and the highlights of his day include watching porn while eating Chinese food, seducing women in bars or trains with nothing more than a knowing look (he is Michael Fassbender, after all,) or catching a quick masturbation session in the office bathroom. But when he returns home to sister, Sissy, (Carey Mulligan) in his shower, having come to live with him unannounced, her extroverted (and equally sexual, in a much different way) presence forces him to re-examine his life choices (probably because she adversely affects his orgasm-per-day ratio.)
McQueen's directorial style matches Sissy's audacious character, by boldly making direct statements with his music choices (there's not much subtlety in his choice to use of ‘I Want your Love' and the already divisive ‘New York, New York' scene is one of the most discussed cues of the year) and provocative choices with his settings (a gay sex bar bathed in red light could have felt like homophobic parody, but instead he realizes it as a representation of Brandon's fucked up headspace.) His meticulously executed long shots return here, with the aforementioned take of Mulligan's ‘New York New York' performance commanding the frame with a strong, studious close-up, and another bravura scene captures the essence of an awkward date in one single shot without ever veering into unrealistic or unnatural dialogue (it probably helps that it is incapable for Michael Fassbender to not look incredibly cool. )
He's constantly trapping Brandon, shooting him clinging to walls or windows as if they were the bars in a prison cell. McQueen has the respect for his actors to let them do their thing without interference (many independent directors should take the example), yet his compositions still add another intriguing layer of affliction to Brandon's character; at one point even chasing him down the streets of New York as he searches for an impossible moment of quiet self-reflection.
And to state the obvious, Fassbender's performance is worthy of a thousand awards. His sly, wordless flirtations contrast with that of his outspoken boss (played wonderfully by James Badge Dale with a pitch-perfect over-talkative nature indicative of college playboys past their prime,) and makes it clear very quickly that, for better or worse, this man is good at what he does. He's so undeniably attractive to the women of Steve McQueen's New York that we're forced to ask: is he psychologically addicted, or is it simply that for a man of his endowments, (financial and physical,) sex is so readily available as to be unavoidable?
Certainly McQueen wants us to consider the possibility, at one point shoots part of the character's most honest moments of dialogue (a post-date walk to the subway) parked in front of a large billboard ad with a half naked woman emblazoned on it. I can't say I've seen any actor embody such joylessness and psychological displeasure in the middle of explicit sex scenes, but Fassbender is able to pull off everything in mere glances: the desire, the compulsion, and the way it drains his focus for every second of every day.
Speaking of those scenes, much has been made of this film's NC-17 rating, but the last word to describe it would be sexy. It is merely a study of a man driven by his uncontrollable compulsion, which could have just have easily been drugs, or crime – as with the main character of Bresson's "PICKPOCKET" who experienced a climactic emotional outburst very comparable to Brandon's emotional explosion at the climax of this film. But it is indicative of McQueen's openly ambiguous style that he attaches a coda after the climax that adds a whole new layer to the proceedings; and in such a bleak take on our culture its hard not to interpret it with a cynical eye.
It may be difficult, unrelentingly dark, and aesthetically bold in ways most would rather not face, but it is impossible to look away from "SHAME."