December 2, 2011
Expectations are high for Shame, the second collaboration of director Steve McQueen with actor Michael Fassbender. Their first film together, Hunger, which was based on IRA prisoner Bobby Sands epochal starvation strike against the British government’s continual military presence in Northern Ireland won kudos around the world. McQueen garnered the Cannes festival’s Camera d’Or, Fassbender won the Irish Film and Television award for best actor and the picture shared Best Film of the Year honours with Inglourious Basterds from the Toronto Film Critics Association. (In fact, I voted for it).
When Shame premiered at this summer’s Venice Film Festival, Fassbender took the Best Actor prize. The film has subsequently played at such top festivals as TIFF, New York and the London.
Melodrama; psychological thriller; addiction “problem” film
Brandon (Fassbender) is a successful executive in Manhattan, whose life is falling apart due to his addiction to sex. He literally can’t get enough: when he isn’t making love to a woman who wants to be with him, he pays prostitutes or watches pornography or has online sex or masturbates in showers or bathrooms. When his emotionally needy sister Sissy (Mulligan) shows up unexpectedly at his Chelsea apartment, Brandon tries to get rid of her but she ignores his warnings and refuses to go. Worse, she makes love to David, Brandon’s boss and friend, endangering their relationship.
When Brandon’s attempt at a normal relationship with fellow office worker Marianne falls apart–ironically, he finds it impossible to make love to her—he descends into a dark night of debauchery. Ignoring Sissy’s pleading phone calls to come back to help her out of a near-suicidal depression, Brandon drinks relentlessly, makes love to prostitutes, has oral sex with a gay man and gets beat up outside of a very heterosexual bar. It’s only when Brandon and Sissy hit bottom that the brother and sister can start to face their obsessions.
Carey Mulligan is remarkable as Sissy. She has the film’s signature scene, singing “New York, New York” as a slow, plaintive Cri de Coeur.
Fassbender is a superb actor but he never seems to locate Brandon’s character. What makes Brandon so obsessed? Fassbender never seems to understand why—and neither does the audience.
Despite McQueen’s great formal training—he’s a Turner Prize winner, England’s top accolade for a contemporary art—Shame rarely hits the heights of Hunger or some of McQueen’s short conceptual pieces, like Deadpan. There are a few wonderful scenes—an exchange of flirtatious glances between Fassbender and an attractive woman in a subway train, a long tracking shot of Fassbender running through lower Manhattan at night—but, overall, the film is not that stylish.
Shame is a massive disappointment. Neither McQueen nor Fassbender can make Brandon and his sex addiction come alive. We’re left with an empty film about emptiness. McQueen, Fassbender and Mulligan are exceptional talents; one can only hope—and expect—better from them in the future.