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New York Film Festival 2011 Entry #4 - Review Of Steve McQueen's "Shame"

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act October 7, 2011 at 1:43AM

This is closer to a stream of consciousness, so let it rip... I thought about the film long after I saw it, chewed, swallowed, and then vomited this... *spoiler alert*
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This is closer to a stream of consciousness, so let it rip... I thought about the film long after I saw it, chewed, swallowed, and then vomited this... *spoiler alert*

The dominant conversation about the film since its debut at the Venice Film Festival 2 months ago has been its supposed explicit depictions of one of the most natural of human acts – sex. The film is expected to receive what is essentially the Scarlet Letter of all MPAA ratings – the dreaded “NC-17.” But after watching Shame earlier today, fully expecting to be thrown into some kind of a tizzy over the shock and awe perversity on display, I walked out wondering what the hell the hullabaloo was all about.

And then it hit me; of course… we see penis; that pleasure/pain external male organ sometimes used in copulation, to transfer semen to the female; and other times use to expel urine from the body.

You know it; also known by its, shall I say, *dirtier* slang alternative - dick.

Because, other than the maybe 2 or 3 shots early in the film – mind you, not lingering shots; more like milliseconds, in passing – in which star Michael Fassbender’s member is shown, there’s absolutely no other sex act depicted in Shame that we haven’t seen in previous films with R-ratings.

The racket over the scenes of “explicit sex” is entirely unwarranted. The considerations of an NC-17 rating are also unnecessary. They instead demonstrate a bias, a double standard.

For decades women’s parts have been on display on screen from a variety of angles, perspectives, and positions. And thus I understand that we’ve gotten very used to that, so it’s not taboo anymore; unlike when a film includes full frontal male nudity.

I think we all know what a dick looks like; I have one. I’ve had one since birth. I’m sure all of us (male and female) have probably seen one live. It’s not *dirty*; It’s not shameful, to borrow from the film’s title. It’s not something that needs to be protected. I watch a film with full frontal male nudity and I think, hey, I recognize that thing. I’ve got one of my own; it’s another dick. It’s a different color, maybe a different size, but I see it, and I know what it is. I’m not shocked by it, and neither should anyone else.

Leave dick alone! As Eddie Murphy’s character in The Distinguished Gentleman said, “Dick is good! Dick is good!

We recently featured a short film on this site titled Slow by Darius Clarke Monroe which included a scene with full male frontal nudity; my goodness, you should have seen some of the emails I received after that.

Maybe I’m in the minority, but I’ve watched a wide variety of films, from all over the world, and, frankly, the scenes depicted in Shame are tame. It’ll take a lot more than what's in this film to shock me! Although I realize my experience isn’t necessarily everyone else’s, so do with that, what you will.

I flinched more at the depictions of the intermingling of sex and violence in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist; that was a far more disturbing film than this, which would have likely received an NC-17 if it was submitted to the MPAA, which is wasn’t.

I appreciated Shame. I will say that I think it’s been over-praised a bit (although maybe it’s a case of my expectations being extremely high, given all the praise it received leading up to my screening earlier today); still, while I thought it was most certainly quite an immersive experience, I wouldn’t crown it the year’s best just yet; although it’ll probably make my 2011 top ten.

I’m not a psychoanalyst, nor have I played one on television, nor can I say I’ve ever been an addict; but I don’t think it’s a stretch for me to say that addiction isn’t entirely about the thing that the addict is addicted to; but also, and maybe more importantly, the high that the addict achieves from the addiction – a high that hides or suppresses (no matter how temporarily) some deeper crisis the person, for whatever reason, refuses, or just isn’t psychologically competent enough to face; or it fills an absence of something else.

There are food addictions; drug addictions; and, of course, sex addictions (and others), which is what’s at the center of Shame’s narrative. Our protagonist and resident addict is played wonderfully by Michael Fassbender in a restrained and rather brave performance.

The 100-minute film laconically tells the tale of Brandon, in a re-teaming of the director/actor duo, a 30-something man, living in New York City, who has trouble controlling and managing his sexual compulsions. He has this almost minute-to-minute preoccupation with sex - from prostitutes, to one-night stands, to porn, to masturbation, to thinking about prostitutes, one-night stands, porn and masturbation, Brandon at first seems to be in some sort of lust-filled exile.

However, it’s not quite what may seem like the carefree, jovial salacious thrill that all I’ve said thus far might suggest; far from it! There’s a definite melancholic undercurrent that pervades the script, from the beginning. You understand that there’s probably something else happening within Brandon, something that will be revealed eventually… at least you hope so.

His actions are repetitious, and mostly self-destructive. You aren't given much of a hint as to where it'll all lead, but in trusting the abilities of the filmmaker, you hope that there would be some moment of clarity; or maybe a shift in momentum to keep you engaged.

If it’s not already clear to you by now, Fassbender is quite exposed here; but not just physically. I called the film an immersive experience, and it’s partly because of Fassbender’s quiet intensity, and the way he just seems to have completely given himself over to both the role and the director. He put himself in a very vulnerable position I think, suggesting a trust between him and Steve McQueen – one that both star and director have previously discussed. It’s almost as if he’s not acting here; the performance is quite natural.

So, if, as I said, playing armchair shrink, addictions provide a high for the addict, partly as an escape from some unresolved personal matter, what then is buried deep inside Fassbender’s Brandon that he’s running away from, or not honestly confronting here?

Therein lies the mystery.

I couldn’t help but wonder if director Steve McQueen (who was present for a Q&A that followed the screening, by the way) had read my review of his script, posted back in May. I say that for two reasons; first, while I certainly won’t tell you what Brandon’s real affliction is, you should know that neither does the film; although you could reach your own conclusions based on the evidence.

I happen to know what his trouble is because I read the script that the film is based on, and reviewed it here on S&A back in May. And if you read that review of the script, you’d know that one of my issues with it was the proverbial “big reveal” at the end – a scene in which all the individual threads come together quite tidily, and Shame makes sense. The “aha” moment!

In my review, I said that I found the revelation anticlimactic; that it wasn’t at all satisfying for me, and I had a kind of “that’s it?” reaction afterward. Not to trivialize the gravity of what is revealed at the end of the script, but I wanted something more, and less, dare I say, cliché, given the amount of time already spent with Brandon and his neuroses; the monotony and repetitiveness of it all.

I say I wonder if McQueen read my review of his script because, he left that scene out of the final film that I saw earlier today – a scene I was fully expecting, for obvious reasons. And I applaud that move, even though it’ll likely leave some audiences baffled after seeing the film, given how ambiguous the ending is now. You’re left to wonder not only what happens next for Brandon (whether he’s reached some catharsis), but also what it was exactly that put him inside this lust-filled prison in the first place, where he seems to be serving an extended sentence.

But I preferred that ambiguity to the finality I read in the script, which I already said left me wanting, and which I think would have had a similar effect on other audiences. So, good call there Mr McQueen. You just may have saved your movie. You can thank me later if you’re reading this :)

The second reason why I say I wonder if McQueen read my review of his script is because, the character played by the lovely Nicole Beharie was a single mother in the script, and there are even references to her son; I believe, in the script, there’s a sequence or two in which Brandon actually interacts with Marianne’s (Nicole Beharie’s) son. And, again, if you recall my review of the script, I also questioned what McQueen’s motivation was for having her be a single mother, given that she is obviously African American (though the character wasn’t written as/for an American American); I wondered if he was possibly making some statement about single mothers in African American households (I think we’re all familiar with the stats and quotes, so I won’t bother here); and also the fact that the man she falls for is Caucasian, certainly wasn’t lost on me.

Almost everything else about the script was so precise and specific that I could only suspect that these choices weren’t simply accidental. And I’d say that if I had similar suspicions about them, others likely would as well.

McQueen may have also realized that fact, or at least considered it (or, as I’d like to think, he read my review of his script :)) because the entire bit about her being a single mother has been eliminated from the story. She mentions that she’s divorced during their first date. But I don’t recall any conversations about children; and, obviously, nor do we actually see a son, nor are there any scenes in which Brandon interacts with him.

So, once again, good call there Mr McQueen if you’re reading this! As I said in my script review, the entire single mother subplot seemed entirely unnecessary to me. There was already enough motivation for Brandon’s fears and inability to connect with Mariane. Adding this single mother plotline might have only raised further questions – questions that may have ultimately been superfluous, given that he wasn't trying to make any statements with those choices (not intentionally anyway).

I should note that, actually, Nicole Beharie’s character is featured a lot less in the film than she is in the script, which was already sparse in terms of scenes she had an active role in. However, although her presence is limited, it’s of significant influence on Brandon, and thus the progression of the story.

It is after Brandon realizes he is unable to make a genuine human connection with this woman, despite making a concerted effort to do so, that he begins to unravel. He likes her, unlike the other women whose bodies he simply uses to achieve his high, often not even looking at their faces, if you know what I mean. She likes him too, and wants to connect with him as well, both physically and emotionally. Their first date doesn’t happen until after about an hour into this 100 minute film. And after that wonderfully acted and directed date sequence (Nicole is a breath of fresh air here - Brandon's connection to the *real* world), I realized that she was the first woman in the entire film at that juncture he’d actually had a full conversation with - from their time in the restaurant, to the walk to the subway, where they said their goodbyes.

She’s the first (and really the only) woman he doesn’t have a one-night stand with. They actually don’t even have sex. There’s an attempt to make love, and we watch them kiss, and caress, and really devour each other with a kind of patience and passion we don’t see at all with any of Brandon’s previous escapades.

And then it happens. Well, actually, it doesn’t happen. He tries to give himself over to the moment, but he simply can’t, if you catch my drift. It’s a different feeling; one that he hasn’t quite felt before, and thus he’s in a position he’s never really had to grapple with until then (within the film anyway). In this single quiet scene, he’s exposed, and is forced to come to terms with the truth of why he is who he is; at least, it begins the process of his unraveling.

The relentlessness of his sister, played by Carey Mulligan, who essentially forces herself into his life, also assists in that disentangling.

Mulligan is the bratty sister who shares a common unrevealed, though hinted at past with Brandon, and is, shall I say, fucked up in her own way. Though the film is not about her; all the characters are there really to serve the deconstruction of Brandon. We learn more and more about him as he interacts with his tiny, close-knit circle, which also includes his rambunctious married boss, who, by the way, sleeps with Brandon’s sister, much to Brandon’s chagrin.

If I could point to one potential problem with Shame, depending on your interpretation of it, is that, while Brandon is depicted as fiercely heterosexual, there is one scene in which he engages in a sexual act with another man, in a gay club he seemingly impulsively enters, during the latter stage of his unraveling.

I say it could be a problem depending on your interpretation because of how the scene is presented, and what Brandon’s psychological state is at the time that it happens.

Despite all the research McQueen said he did for the film, he seems to have given in to the easiest, most clichéd choice in how he opted to shoot that entire sequence. Here, gay sex is presented as something illicit, dirty even, taking place in what looks almost like a dungeon buried inside the club, as men sequester themselves to individual curtained-off "cells," where they do “unspeakable” things to one another.

Add to that a consideration for the mental space that Brandon is in when he gives himself over in this sequence – he’s coming undone – and you’d have to wonder what McQueen might be trying to say here; if anything intentional.

And as the only scene in which sex between men is depicted in the film, I can see some in the film’s audience taking issue with that depiction.

Or not; as I said, it depends on how you interpret it. The question wasn't addressed during the Q&A that followed, so I don't have any answers to enlighten.

However, McQueen does a really good job of melding image and sound to create an immersive whole. You feel like you really are part of that universe, so much that, when the film was over, I had to kind of shake myself out of it.

I already noted Fassbender’s ability to really disappear into the role as a contributing factor; you forget that he’s acting here.

It made me think of the last film I saw at the NYFF (before Shame) - David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, in which Michael Fassbender plays psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Walking away from the theater after my screening of Shame today, I immediately sought a connection between the 2 films, and the characters Fassbender plays in each.

I think Jung would relish the opportunity to observe, analyze and treat Brandon’s neuroses; and there’s probably something to be said for the fact that in A Dangerous Method, Jung himself (somewhat stiffly embodied by Fassbender) struggles with the idea of becoming his true self, and unleashing the repressed part that lies within.

To that end, I'd say that Fassbender plays restrained and contained very well. Though, as you’ll see in Shame, a ferocity sits just underneath the surface. I might even consider switching the titles and instead call Shame, A Dangerous Method.

Shame is quite somber; there’s a deep sadness, a melancholy that runs throughout the entire film, with a few moments of levity scattered about.

But I was engaged from start to end.

As with the last McQueen film, with regards to cinematography, I fully expected this to paint an interesting, if unconventional, or even experimental picture. But surprisingly, although understandably, McQueen left his contemporary visual Artiste specs at home this time around, opting to instead tell what is really a rather straightforwardly-produced and shot, although ambiguously-concluded narrative.

While there are some similarities to his debut feature, Hunger, Shame stands entirely on its own, as a separate work, and a notable sophomore outing for Mr McQueen.

This article is related to: Film Festival


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