Oct 11, 2011

NYFF 2011: Shame

The fruitful collaboration between director Steve McQueen (Hunger) and actor Michael Fassbender is starting to resemble Scorsese's with De Niro. Shame, their second foray together, is also about the mortification of the flesh but for opposite reasons to Hunger. Brandon, the protagonist of Shame, is far from a religious-political martyr who sacrifices himself with fearless discipline for a cause; he is a sex addict. Handsome, successful by the New York definition (he owns his apartment and has a job), he cannot control his sexual urges. He uses sex like other people abuse drugs. He masturbates in the office, watches porn there and at home, spends probably half his salary on expensive whores, and cannot stop. As is to be expected, this man whose mind is mired in filth, is an obsessive neat freak. His world is all smooth surfaces, steely blues and grays. He looks like money and women fall for him (who wouldn't?). The promise of sex with him sounds tantalizing, but just as he is mysteriously attractive, he is disgusting. He is disgusted with himself for being disgusting, so he goes deeper into more disgust.
The opening shot of this movie is Fassbender lying naked in bed, blue sheets covering his groin, looking like a supine Christ in a renaissance painting. McQueen is a renowned visual artist and, as in Hunger, every frame of this movie is masterfully composed and some are reminiscent (or is it just me?) of classic painting motifs, like pietas and annunciations. But the controlled aesthetics are in counterpoint to visceral emotions, and as in Hunger, McQueen does not shy away from the visceral. He doesn't go for the overly graphic either. He does not confuse that kind of shock value with art, as other more pretentious auteurs do (I'm thinking Bertolucci or Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny). The shock here comes from Brandon's terrible psychic pain and his joyless debasement of his body. Fassbender gives a brave and incredible, almost silent performance as a guy who is fighting with all his being against feeling emotional pain, by compulsively, almost suicidally seeking the release of sexual pleasure, but without the intimacy of human connection. It is a miracle he can keep this perverse act of self-loathing going on for as long as he does. I guess being a white male with money helps.
A woman leaves insistent messages on Brandon's phone. He never picks up. He works at a cold and angular job, all male assholes at the top, for a garrulous married boss that tries too hard to pick up women. Brandon, in contrast, vanquishes them like flies just by deploying devastating come hither looks. He can have any woman he wants in New York (including me). So why use whores? Why watch porn? Because sex is a wonderful way to feel everything but pain. It is a wonderful way to feel debased. He is self-medicating his shame with more of the same.
Spoiler alert, plot details ahead:
One day he comes home from yet another zipless fuck, as Erica Jong would say, to find music blaring from his stereo (the song: Chic's I Want your Love). He takes a baseball bat and bursts into the bathroom, where a woman (the excellent Carey Mulligan) is taking a shower. The framing of this scene reminded me of a Giotto annunciation. She reminds him she had keys. She is an emotional wreck with a bad dye job. Probably nothing thwarts a sex addict more than an unwanted house guest; even worse, a close relative. Later, we figure out that Sissy is his sister, but this is not a "here comes the Flying Nun to set her brother straight" story. She is a mess; a cabaret singer, with traces of self-inflicted damage on her wrists. These two are extremely damaged goods, from across the river in Jersey, which appears in the distance in several scenes, (as if the brother and sister had crossed the river Styx and still could not get rid of all that pain), and prior to that, Ireland. Probably Catholics, hence even more shame. At one point she says, "we come from a bad place, but we are not bad people". This is explanation enough. McQueen is not one for the American confessional mode. The point of shame is guilt and secrecy, not spilling the beans to anyone who will listen.
In contrast to her brother, Sissy expresses her pain by singing, (meaning: by being an artist) and by wallowing in big emotions. She embraces her mistakes so hard she almost smothers them with love. But she doesn't even have a roof over her head and asks to stay with Brandon for a while. She sleeps on the couch and Brandon can hear her, over the heavy breathing of his internet porn, crying and desperately begging a boyfriend to take her back, debasing herself for love and attention: it seems to be the family way. But does he go out and comfort her? Hell, no. He is at once heartbroken and disgusted.
At a nightclub, in the presence of her brother and his boss, Mulligan, photographed in a warm, golden light, sings the most depressing, ironic cover of "New York, New York". It may be her commentary on her own failure to achieve success (although if she made it to a swanky bar that takes reservations, she can't be so shabby), or on her brother's unconvincing veneer of success. He may fool everyone else, but he doesn't fool her. He sheds a tear when he hears her sorrowful voice, but is cold and stingy with his praise. His boss, however, charms her with deserved admiration, and soon she is fooling around with him in Brandon's bed. This is like taking the last baggie on Earth away from a desperate cokehead. He is furious: it disgusts him that she slept with his boss, and he knows this is the pretext he can use to ask her to leave, but he won't admit that she took over his space and now he cannot abuse himself in peace. She comes into his bed later to patch things up, but aware of his unbearable urges, he banishes her from his bedroom. Fassbender won the acting prize in Venice and is a huge contender for the big acting awards coming up. He embodies coherently and fearlessly the extreme contradictions in Brandon's character.
Brandon, unwilling to recognize his problem, just keeps getting worse. The fact his sister is there does not clean him up; it makes him feel even dirtier. His computer at work is taken and a massive cache of hardcore porn is found in the hard drive. His boss tells him that "whoever" put it there is a sick fuck. I guess this being a boy's club, they'd rather keep Brandon, who seems to be good at his job, even though he is always late, than fire him. Brandon feigns ignorance and just walks out of the room. Still, while Sissy lives with him, he goes on a date with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie, wonderful). He makes an effort. The date scene is intimate and awkward, and the waiter, armed with the pretentious spiel of most New York restaurant waiters, keeps interrupting the flow of a painfully labored conversation, and making it worse for Brandon, who is having a hard time trying to seem normal. He really likes this woman and leaves her hanging on the first date with nary a kiss good night. Lo and behold, he controls himself. This does not last long. In the office, on a whim, he takes her to the Standard Hotel (a good example of successful product placement, for once) in the meatpacking district, for a quickie. Unsurprisingly, he can't perform with her. Worse, he treats her like he treats his whores. The answer to which is even more debasement.
McQueen knows how to handle dramatic scenes, and he is a great director of actors. The key confrontation between brother and sister is shot in close up from the back, as the siblings sit side by side on Brandon's couch. She asks him to hug her and this unleashes a torrent of hissing cruelty from him. This scene is far more wounding than if it had been shot showing the actors arguing from the front. Mulligan's extraordinary work in this movie should also be recognized come awards time. I didn't know she had it in her to be so raw.
The third act is Brandon's spiral descent into hell. On his long dark night of the soul, Brandon looks for ways to hit bottom, one of which is to have a paid threesome. The music is Glenn Gould playing Bach, what Brandon hears in his iPod to calm his battered soul. But how does a serious film portray images of sex? The originality lies in that the scene, shot in an arty way that looks like what porn would look like if it had better lighting and a good cinematographer (in this case, Sean Bobbitt, who also shot Hunger), happens to be dramatically the lowest point of Brandon's existence. In contrast to porn, which refuses to acknowledge human feelings, this extended sexual sequence is there to portray the soul of a man in torment. The scene ends with Brandon's face striving painfully for the obliteration of orgasm and becoming monstrous, deformed.
The movie ends with a terrible catharsis. It takes something much worse than what Brandon has been avoiding all along, to make him come out on the other side.
I really liked Shame, but there is something about McQueen's disciplined style that I find confounding. This movie is about extreme emotions, but something feels cold at its core.

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