By Don Simpson | December 8, 2011
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, Nicole Beharie, James Badge Dale, Alex Manette, Elizabeth Masucci, Robert Montano, Hannah Ware, Calamity Chang, DeeDee Luxe
I wonder if Ron Jeremy is getting jealous over of all of the publicity that has been generated by Michael Fassbender’s penis? It is quite impressive — the publicity, that is — and while discussing writer-director Steve McQueen’s Shame, it is the elephant in the room. (That is not intended to be a comment on the size of said penis, though you can take it as one if you wish, as Smells Like Screen Spirit is a classy publication that does not intend to focus its efforts on the critiquing of actors’ genitalia.) The reason Fassbender’s penis is getting so much press is because film audiences (especially within the puritanical boarders of the United States) are not used to being exposed to male full frontal nudity. (Of the 300+ films that I have seen in 2011, I would estimate that I have seen no more than 20 films with male full frontal nudity — being that a significant majority of the films I have viewed this year have been foreign and/or independent makes that statistic all that more staggering.) When it comes down to it, studios and distributors are of the opinion that audiences do not want to see male full frontal nudity, unless it is gay porn. But then here we are with Shame — a film being distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures in the United States, that features more full frontal shots than any film I have seen in recent history. So maybe things are changing? Are Americans finally becoming more comfortable with nudity and sex? Do not get me wrong, I am not necessarily advocating for more male full frontal nudity in films; but in scenarios in which it seems totally natural for actors to perform au naturale, why beat around the bush (mind the pun)? The opening sequence of Shame is a prime example of a scenario that had to be shot with Fassbender revealing the full monty. But I am getting ahead of myself, so please allow me to back up a frame or two — Shame is a film about a sex addict (shamelessly portrayed by Fassbender), so if you are scared of male nudity then this is definitely not a film for you…
Okay, so I do not intend to be too revealing — of the plot, that is — as Shame is more of a character study than a plot-driven film anyway. To quote the Buzzcocks, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) “want[s] fuckie always and all ways, he’s got the energy, he will remain, he’s an orgasm addict…he’s always at it…he’s an orgasm addict.” It is also important to note that Brandon cannot commit to relationships; while his younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), craves the intimacy and security of a relationship but is repeatedly screwed and tossed away by guys who are just as swarmy as her brother. To say that Brandon and Sissy’s relationship is strained and awkward is an understatement, so when Sissy begs Brandon to allow her to crash on his sofa for a while, he is nothing short of peeved. But is saying “no” even an option? And thus Shame is yet another 2011 film (Melancholia, Martha Marcy May Marlene) that places sibling relationships under the microscope, critically observing siblings with conflicting social and financial philosophies (such as their differing definitions of security, responsibility, freedom and the necessities of life) and questioning whether family is ultimately responsible for taking care of each other.
Okay, so I guess I am going to reveal a tiny slice of the plot that occurs in the 3rd act, so close your eyes if you do not want any spoilers!
I find it interesting that Brandon’s moment of zen occurs after an all-nighter that would make even Caligula blush. Let’s see… A finger fuck leads to a bar fight, which sends Brandon to a gay sex club where he graciously accepts a blow job, then he is off to enjoy a prolonged threesome with two female prostitutes (Calamity Chang, DeeDee Luxe); the morning after, Brandon appears (to quote Alex from A Clockwork Orange) “a bit shagged and fagged and fashed, it being a night of no small expenditure.” That leads me to a discussion of the few moments in Shame that strike me as a bit gratuitous and/or too contrived (which are the two most frequent criticisms of Shame thus far), and the aforementioned third act crescendo in which Brandon goes out with an endless array of bangs (especially the scene in the gay club — do all sexually troubled male characters have to go gay before they straighten themselves out?) is one of them. Another such scene takes place in a bar where Brandon effortlessly competes with his boss David (James Badge Dale) for a sultry blond woman (Elizabeth Masucci) in a power suit. The point of this scene seems to be to showcase Brandon’s sexual magnetism. Women just cannot resist him — other guys can try to compete, but Brandon is always going to get the prize at the end of the night. But I am just not buying it. Brandon comes off as Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) and Jack the Ripper rolled into one creepy dude — would this presumably smart and independent business woman really want to screw him?
But, for the most part, the performances in Shame are brutally honest. One of my favorite scenes, at least in terms of realism, takes place in a restaurant as Brandon has a series of awkward exchanges with his dinner date (Nicole Beharie) and the waiter (Robert Montano); not only is the clumsy dialogue in this scene absolutely priceless but this one scene brilliantly exemplifies the difficulties that Brandon has communicating with people. Brandon has become so detached from “normal” society because of his steady diet of porn, live sex chats and prostitutes; his everyday exchanges with people — those who are not mere sex objects — have become incredibly stilted and uncomfortable.
Shame is one of those rare modern films that I would love to construct a hearty critical analysis of, mainly because the perspectives and framing of every scene convey as much purpose as the characters themselves. But a discussion of this film at that level will require several more viewings and a significantly higher word count. (Heck, it might take me a few thousand words just to discuss the scene in which Sissy performs “Theme from New York, New York“.) As much as I admire the writing, direction and performances of Shame, I do not know how many repeat viewings I could endure. Shame is an emotionally exhausting film; it is certainly not a film that is intended to be enjoyed.