BY NANCY R. MANDELL
“Shame” —a film that chronicles in great detail the joylessness of sex —is a movie that has been taken seriously at several international film festivals including the 2011 Independent Spirit Awards which selected it as the year’s Best Foreign Film. The independent spirit behind “Shame” is British visual artist Steve McQueen who directed and co-wrote the movie which stars Michael Fassbender. Fassbender also played the protagonist in McQueen’s brutal examination of I.R.A. hunger striker Bobby Sands in 2008’s “Hunger.”
With such credentials—not to mention a certain amount of shock value— “Shame” well deserves the attention it’s been attracting, but that doesn’t mean it deserves yours. Consider very carefully whether you are up to 99 minutes of obsessive, compulsive behavior by a sex addict barely masquerading as a corporate player who hangs with the guys after a successful day at the office.
His name is Brandon, and it doesn’t take long to discover that he is rarely thinking about anything other than his next sexual encounter—whether it is with a call girl in his apartment, a bar pickup in an alley, or himself in the office men’s room. As played by Fassbender, Brandon is good-looking, well-dressed and completely without humor. An early scene where one imagines he might be inviting a flirtation with an attractive young woman sitting opposite him on the subway is as close as McQueen comes to a tease. The incident ends when the woman disappears into the crowd; the chase is not really a part of Brandon’s MO.
By way of plot, the deadly seriousness with which Brandon pursues his compulsion is interrupted by an uninvited houseguest, his emotionally needy, dependent sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who insists on ignoring the fact that he obviously wants nothing to do with her. For one thing, she is his messy, undisciplined opposite; for another her presence cramps his style by limiting his compulsive self-indulgence.
Brandon’s best bud—and boss—played by James Badge Dale, provides a touch of comic (or is it cynical?) relief. He’s the happily married dad who fancies himself a pickup artist, but usually goes down in flames while Brandon gets to stir the ashes. He is so clueless about his star employee that, when a routine office check of employee hard drives uncovers Brandon’s porn obsession, he attributes it to the summer intern who had access to Brandon’s computer. Although Brandon is totally unphased by this threat to his career, he completely loses his cool when Sissy sleeps with the boss after the two men catch her vocal act in a downtown club.
In this scene, Sissy steals the spotlight with the slowest, moodiest rendition of “New York, New York” in musical memory, performing it as a torch song that drives her brother to tears and his boss to indiscretion.
As his roommate, Sissy comes pretty close to discovering Brandon’s dirty secrets, a situation which leads him—briefly—to an attempt to change his ways. In a frenzy, he disposes of closets and boxes full of print and video porn and actually asks a new office colleague on a date. Their awkward social encounters make it clear that Brandon can’t handle a normal relationship and, in fact, drive him to an orgy that is the most explicit yet least erotic sequence of simulated sex scenes in my film-going experience.
For a serious actor, (see “A Dangerous Method” in which he also sheds clothing) Fassbender, spends a great deal of screen time here either naked (from every possible angle) or in rumpled underwear that never saw a CK label. It’s what you call a “brave” performance. But while he scrubs away his “shame” after every sexual encounter (at least those that take place in his apartment), it still looks like his sheets need to be changed.
Although I think McQueen may have had groundbreaking in mind when he conceived this motion picture, I found it difficult to assign it a place in the pantheon of films like “I Am Curious Yellow” and “Last Tango in Paris” that have broken sexual barriers. McQueen’s determination to shock may be successful, but without any insight into Brandon’s psyche, he’s not very stimulating.
The one clue we’re offered as to what makes him tick comes from Sissy, who briefly consoles him by assuring him that, whatever it is that ails them as brother and sister, they “come from a bad place.” According to the screenplay, it’s somewhere in New Jersey.
“Shame” opened in New York and Los Angeles on Dec.2 and will be “staggered” throughout the rest of the country in upcoming weeks.