'Shame': Being a sex-addicted bachelor in New York gets old
"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, which details the numbing routine of a sex-addicted bachelor in Manhattan, but the results are clear in the self-destructive behavior of these two siblings. There's a lot of graphic sex in Shame, which may attract most of the attention from audiences and critics, but the feeling of survived trauma pulses beneath the film like unacknowledged radio static. McQueen is not interested in why Sissy and Brandon are the way they are; he wants to examine how trauma and addiction actually 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, always specific. He is a visual artist of the highest order, melding content to form in every shot. No shot is static, no space is unexplored for its interesting visual properties, and every time the camera cuts it means something. He often plays out scenes in one long take, which gives 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, and the camera follows along with him the entire way. McQueen's shots themselves have tension in them, which makes sense, since 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, the harrowing film 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 certainly got Fassbender the attention he required at that juncture in his career.
In Shame, he looks eerily like Ted Bundy, clean-cut, handsome, remote, with an elegant scarf around his neck. He lives in a high-rise 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, a perfect choice), but other than that it's pretty sparse in terms of decoration and furnishings.
We see his routine. He goes to work, he usually takes mid-morning masturbation breaks in the men's room, he comes home, he loses himself in Internet porn, he hires prostitutes to come over, or sometimes he actually 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 more sloppy married boss, David (James Badge Dale). Throughout the opening sequence of the film, 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 turns out not to be from a scorned lover, but from his sister Sissy, an aspiring singer who needs a place to crash. He ignores her. 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 that Brandon seems incapable of, from all we have so far seen of him. But there's something about siblings. Siblings knew you back when and it is impossible to hide from them, which is both an annoying and a beautiful part of such a bond. Brandon's defenses do lower with Sissy, and she brings his awareness of his intimacy-pathology roaring to the forefront of his consciousness.
This all may seem a bit contrived, and there are moments when Shame is just that, but the script is excellent in telling us only what we need to know and letting the audience fill in the blanks. Sissy climbs into bed with Brandon in the middle of the night. She is cold. She curls up against her brother's back. He asks her to leave. She refuses. He explodes at her and she runs away in fear. The scene is disturbing and potent, and remains undeveloped, unexplained. Telling too much would derail Shame.
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, who is obviously a mess, would get such a high-end gig, but Shame is not, I don't think, meant to be realistic. It is a dark dream of a New York seen through the eyes of two damaged transplants (the siblings were born in Ireland and then the family moved to New Jersey). It is fitting, then, that Sissy would do a slow elegiac version of "New York, New York" for her number at the nightclub, and for the majority of the song, which she sings in a quavering earnest voice, McQueen's camera stays on her in deep closeup. He does not pull away, until he finally does, to an alternating closeup of Brandon listening to her sing.
As the camera lingers on Fassbender, you can see a transformation start to come over his face, tears welling up in his eyes and overflowing. Nothing we have seen of him up until now could prepare us for this. After the song, it is as though none of it ever happened. Brandon coolly tells Sissy that her performance was "interesting." Brandon's boss David is far more complimentary and Sissy ends up fucking David that night, in Brandon's bed, as Brandon sits out in the living room, listening, curled up against the wall in an agony of repressed feeling.
It is because of these moments that we feel intense empathy for Brandon, whose behavior is mostly monstrous. But let's not forget the title of the movie. Brandon never speaks about 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 ("I mean, creampies, Brandon? I don't even know what that is"), and with the flirtation he has going on with a pretty coworker, played by Nicole Beharie. (She is definitely someone to watch.) 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. He tries and he fails.
McQueen is already 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 nearly as long.
Sissy's invasion of Brandon's space, as well as the flirtation with Marianne, starts to crack Brandon's facade. He throws out all his porn in a frenzy. He tries to make love to Marianne and then, horrifyingly for him, he can't. He speaks to no one about any of this. Although he is a libertine himself, he is disturbed by Sissy's similar tendencies, and actually 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.
The damage is perhaps irreparable.
Fassbender is charming, pained, deadened and suddenly tender in Shame. It would be easy to judge Brandon. We don't. We're just glad we're not him. Carey Mulligan turns in a funny, sad, and vulnerable performance, and she has moments of behavior with her brother that reminds me that when she is with him she is really only about 10 years old.
We never learn what "bad place" these two came from. We don't need to.
Shame has its silly elements, but the strong performances and Steve McQueen's meticulous and intuitive direction makes this one of the highlights of the New York Film Festival.
Screening some of the most highly anticipated films of the season, along with special programs and series focusing on directors and avant-garde work, the 49th New York Film Festival runs to October 16. Take a look at the schedule and purchase tickets here.