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Tuesday
Feb282012

Film Review : Shame

Reviewed by Lawrence Howard

In British director Steve McQueen’s second film we see a startling talent.  His first film (2008) also has a one-word title: Hunger.    Now in the Criterion collection, Hunger focuses on Bobby Sands, the first Provo IRA-man to starve himself to death in the British Maze prison.  Michael Fassbender plays Bobby Sands.  The parallels between these two films suggest a great filmmaker

 

In my estimate Shame is the best movie of the year 2012 so far; it’s a contender on my list for 2011 but it was only released in December of that year.  Full-frontal male and female nudity removed it from consideration for an Oscar or Golden Globe.  How lucky we are to have our decency so sheltered.

 

 Shame is about Brandon, a handsome corporate type who “nails” presentations without a tie. No one mentions his last name.  He lives in a carefully un-cluttered upscale apartment on 31st Street with a fabulous view of the river.  The order of his home contrasts with the disorder of his inner life.  He flips the top of a beer bottle to the floor as a dissonant harbinger as he settles down to play with his online playmate.  Counterpoint from Bach’s Goldberg Variations completes the scene.

 

 We soon learn that Brandon is someone we might call a sex addict.  He hires expensive prostitutes whom he bids to undress slowly, he has on-line playmates, he masturbates at work, he has parking-lot sex with beautiful strangers, and his computer at work is filled with pornography.   He ends up in acts of humiliation and getting badly beaten.  While sex is shown, it is loveless, driven, and ultimately painful.  The scenes are not prurient.

 

McQueen selects Michael Fassbender again to portray Brandon.                                                              

 

We meet three women who affect Brandon.  His finely ordered life is disturbed when he perceives a prowler in his house.  It is his sister Sissy whom he confronts in the shower.   He had somehow forgotten that he had given her a key. Played with exquisite power by Carey Mulligan  (Drive, An Education), Sissy is messy, histrionic, passionate and needy.  She flips the top of her beer onto the floor. She pleads on the phone with an unseen boyfriend to take her back.  She has marks on her wrist from suicide attempts. She seeks comfort and cuddles from Brandon. She has sex with Brandon’s boss.  But unlike Brandon, Sissy experiences sex as joyous.  She knows of Brandon’s sexual obsessions.  The question of incest is always present but never answered; they know each other very well. “We are not bad people; we just come from a bad place.”  

 

Mulligan has two award-worthy scenes: one in which she sings a club standard (New York, New York with an amazing piano accompaniment) with full-face openness that makes her nude shower scene seem Victorian.  It literally brings on tears. This scene is worth the price of admission. 

 

Her second killer scene is a behind-the-couch shot of the back of Brandon’s head with an out-of-focus 1930s cartoon playing un-watched on the big-screen television.  He is recovering from an impotent seduction.  Sissy comes home, sits next to him then asks him to hold her.  She turns to face him. Both profiles are backlit.  She comments on his anger; she pleads that she cares for him, they are brother and sister and are to look after each other.  He lashes out against her untidiness, her always being sorry, and her neediness.  She is a weight on him.  This dialogue is the backbone of the film.

                                                                                                                                                       This scene harkens back to the centerpiece of Hunger.  Bobby Sands has a dialogue with a priest (Liam Cunningham) in which both profiles are backlit.   Sands reveals the plan for Maze prisoners sequentially to begin fasts to demand recognition from the crown as political prisoners.  Father Delaney tries to dissuade Sands that the gesture will be futile and ultimately suicidal.  He suggests this will be condemnable.  Sands demonstrate his resolve by telling a tale from his youth.   This 22-minute shot is an unedited single take.

 

A second woman in Shame is Marianne, played by Nicole Beharie (American Violet).  A beautiful black office-mate, Brandon invites her to a dinner (Brandon, conflicted, shows up late), to conversation and attempted seduction.  She is Bronx native; she likes being who she is and where she is.  She dates Brandon because she is interested in forming a relationship; as it becomes painfully evident, this is something Brandon cannot do.  Real women terrify him.  He would be somebody else. I cannot recall when a dinner conversation in film has felt so real.

 

The third woman has no name and speaks no lines (Lucy Walker). We sit opposite her on the subway, and watch as the wordless dance grows between her and Brandon, all underscored by the unforgettable score of Harry Escott.  The dance recurs again as the final scene of the film without resolution.   Will he do as he has?  Or is change possible?    

 

Steve McQueen is a wonderful director. His two films have explored the inner lives of men living at the edge. He does not moralize or cast polemics.  We have only the slightest history: as Sands is dying he recalls a seminal event of his youth.  For the rest McQueen wants us here in the vivid and darkly beautiful present.  We stare at hands of a guard washing the blood from his torn knuckles in a sink.  We stare down the hall separating cells as a guard grows in size as he push-brooms the fluids waste poured form the cells toward us. We do not know what Bobby Sands did or the particulars for which he was sentenced.  We are asked to watch.  We cannot but feel.

 

Similarly, we know next to nothing of Brandon’s prior life that left him in the jaws of his obsession.  Instead we are given the present in carefully crafted scenes:  Brandon ritually cleaning a toilet in a men room stall so he can masturbate or turning his head to watch a woman’s rear in well-fitted jeans.   McQueen is interested in taking us to an edge we might well experience.   Do we turn our head to look at shapely women?  I do.  Do I care enough for a principal that I’m willing to undergo the torture of starvation to death?  For 60-odd days?   I do not know.

 

These two characters are remarkable opposites.  Brandon is experiencing hedonistic adaptation: he fails to find fulfillment in endless pleasurable sensation.  Bobby forgoes all physical pleasure for the steely resolve of principal.

 

Shame has wonderful music.  Harry Escott’s minimalist and mesmerizing score plays like another character, a looming foreboding.  The solo of Carey Mulligan telling New York City that “it’s up to you” is edited only to show the effect that she has on Brandon.  Mulligan has a singing career if she gives up on film.  A CD of the soundtrack is available.

 

Have I told you why you must see this film?   Currently playing at the Regent Westpark in Irvine, CA.

 

Lawrence Howard is a graduate of the University of California,  Irvine, from which he received a Ph.D. and where he has taught cognitive science and lectured on politics and society. He is the author of Terrorism: Roots, Impacts, Responses (Praeger, 1992). 

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