REVIEW: “Shame” (***1/2)

Posted by · 5:36 am · September 4th, 2011

Venice Film Festival

If “Hunger,” artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen’s remarkable debut feature, was a study of a body strenuously denied its fundamental needs, his satisfyingly rigorous, explicit follow-up, “Shame,” traces the very different damage done by a body over-gifted with wants.

A sternly formalist parable on the pruning and stunting of relationships both familial and carnal in modern-day urban society, “Shame” is only for the purposes of swift summary a story of sex addiction — specifically that endured by Brandon, Michael Fassbender’s dourly handsome New York advertising hotshot. Sex, and the pursuit thereof, is what needles Brandon first and foremost, but it doesn’t take Freud (or indeed Fassbender’s own Jung from “A Dangerous Method”) to tell that it’s a displaced urge in a life whose most crippling vacancies take longer to fill than a Friday night fuck.

“Hunger” was a film that dismantled known history and re-presented it in highly sensual, imagistic terms. The new film might be a foray into fiction for its director — working from an original screenplay by British playwright and television scribe Abi Morgan — but it performs a similar trick with psychology so embedded in the popular consciousness it would appear to offer little room for surprise.

Morgan’s views on the human condition, and on single professional self-alienation, aren’t especially revelatory (its portrait of Brandon is a more solemn essay on male ennui issues that fill monthly copies of GQ magazine), but McQueen’s depiction of his narrow, clammy routine is rendered in such crisp, arresting visual and sonic strokes that his plight becomes that much more distinct. This is lifestyle cinema in the most literal, and least romantic, sense of the term.

If it seems surprising that Brits McQueen and Morgan, not to mention their Irish and British leads, have converged on the United States for a story of fairly universal resonance, it makes perfect sense when the film’s vision of New York City comes into clean, cold focus: famously a city of everything at once, McQueen and brilliant “Hunger” DP Sean Bobbitt shoot it as a kind of continuous, gunmetal-colored waiting room, at once over-populated with distractions and under-populated with options.

Theirs is a city where people size each other up in subway carriages and do the nasty in plate-glass windows: Brandon’s addiction isn’t just fed, it’s positively forced. In an exquisitely held scene where Carey Mulligan, as Brandon’s feckless younger sister Sissy, sings a slowed-down, jazz-lite rendition of Kander and Ebb’s “New York, New York,” her interpretation tempers the original’s elated defiance into something rather more ominous, an expression of desire to “make it there” from someone who nonetheless knows the city is far more likely to swallow her whole.

It is Sissy’s unannounced arrival that takes Brandon’s conventional crisis of depravity into blurrier, more dramatically involving territory: played by Mulligan with a blend of her expected baby-woman fragility and a harder, drawling insouciance that’s excitingly new from the actress, Sissy colonizes Brandon’s white-cube bachelor pad and calls him out on his indulgences, though her life is less gathered than his: her arms marked with a lithograph of self-harm scars, drifting between boyfriends with only some proudly vintage clothes to call her own, she demands Brandon’s care with a fervor that professes the need to preserve family ties and fabricate balance — what has happened their parents is never explained, but it’s clear they’re vulnerably alone in their bloodline — but occasionally threatens to subvert them. When she climbs into her brother’s bed, the fury with which he ejects her hints at realms of desire he either fears or has already broached.

This is messy emotional terrain, and I wish Morgan’s intelligent script were less eager to tidy it up with neat, if cutting, symbolism and a redemptive moral arc that’s plotted a mite too smoothly: it’s left to McQueen’s inventively disciplined direction and the superb actors to chip a few crevices into the material. Clearly, following their joint breakthrough partnership on “Hunger,” Fassbender and McQueen are familiar with the levels of each other’s control: the actor is tightly, precisely coiled here as he was in the Bobby Sands biopic, and as dependent on his (amply and immodestly viewed) physical form for tension and expression. If the recent likes of “Jane Eyre” and “X-Men: First Class” warmed Hollywood up to the idea of Fassbender as a regular-world lead, this performance should give them pause — and that’s meant encouragingly.)

Mulligan, meanwhile, isn’t just more limber and engagingly crumpled than she’s yet been on screen, but is offered her most generous rapport yet with a co-star: the tetchily, even desperately, adoring sibling relationship between them is so authentic as to etch in a lot of subtext the script needn’t provide.

“That’s all you ever say, that you’re sorry,” Brandon scolds Sissy in one of their many arguments. “At least I say I’m sorry,” she shoots back, her voice giving us all the history of forgiven liberties we need. (Fassbender finds another equal sparring partner in the excellent Nicole Beharie, radiating smart warmth as the co-worker whose emotional security  undoes his sexual confidence.)

It’s no slight on the actors, and only a measure of the hand guiding them, that McQueen remains the star here. Like the finest filmmakers from a fine-arts background, he has a consistently rewarding understanding of the narrative powers of composition: abetted by heaving, tricky sound design and Harry Escott’s counter-intuitively soaring score (with an assist from some well-chosen Glenn Gould recordings), “Shame” conjures image upon image of such astonishing beauty that they’d risk stalling the film if not for the spare depth of feeling grounding the whole. The first of these opens the film, with Fassbender sprawled across his bed, his body as unhappily taut and angular as a Francis Bacon subject. He takes up the top half of the screen, a sea of creased cornflower-blue bedsheet filling the remainder: for its dense chain of trysts and dependencies, “Shame” is most powerfully a film of absence.

[Images: Momentum Pictures]


→ 34 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

34 responses so far

  • 1 9-04-2011 at 5:47 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Oscar prospects, before anyone asks: probably nil. And yay for that.

  • 2 9-04-2011 at 5:52 am

    JJ1 said...

    Guy, I hope you don’t get irked whenever people ask about the Oscar prospects … this IS “incontention”, haha.

    But in any case, thanks for that info/opinion. And thanks for another wonderfully written review. I hope you don’t stress too much about having to one-up your next review; or perhaps it just flows from that brain of yours too easily.

    You do have a knack. :)

  • 3 9-04-2011 at 6:11 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’m not at all irked — I just want to ensure people get excited about this film for the right reasons. Some readers have a tendency to assume that any strong film unveiled around this time of year must be an Oscar goer — I’d rather keep expectations in check while presenting a case for why the film matters regardless. ;)

  • 4 9-04-2011 at 6:43 am

    Liz said...

    Great review, Guy. I do have a question about this:

    “If the recent likes of ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘X-Men: First Class’ warmed Hollywood up to the idea of Fassbender as a regular-world lead, this performance should give them pause — and that’s meant encouragingly.)

    Could you elaborate a little further? Are you already concerned that Fassbender is becoming overexposed/rote in his choices? I ask because he’s possibly my favorite actor out there right now, and while I do want him to be successful and have his pick of projects, I don’t want to see him follow the path of someone like Russell Crowe, whom I used to love, but whose projects for the last few years have bored me to tears.

    Again, thanks for this! Fascinating stuff.

  • 5 9-04-2011 at 6:51 am

    Liz said...

    I should clarify: I’m speaking hypothetically in terms of Fassbender’s future projects, since “Shame” and “A Dangerous Method,” whatever their ultimate quality, certainly can’t qualify as rote.

  • 6 9-04-2011 at 7:19 am

    Michael said...

    perfect review is perfect. I seriously can’t wait to see this movie. I loved Hunger to bits and it doesn’t sound like this movie is going to let me down in the slightest. And Oscars? We don’t need no stinking Oscars! If the movie is that good, the people who watch it will be rewarded enough just by seeing it – further validation is hardly necessary.

    I am curious though if the film has received U.S. distribution yet and if there are any plans for a limited release within the U.S. this year, or if it is gonna follow a similar trajectory as “Meek’s Cutoff” and be released here sometime in Spring of 2012 (or later)?

  • 7 9-04-2011 at 7:24 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Liz: I guess I mean that there’s a certain austerity about Fassbender — which is what we certainly like about him — that somehow resists mainstream heroism, and that’s especially apparent here. I’m probably wrong in terms of career projection, and I’m thrilled to see so many latching onto him, but I think it’s small, prickly projects like this where he really slays it.

    Michael: No US distribution yet, but it won’t be waiting long.

  • 8 9-04-2011 at 9:24 am

    Nick Davis said...

    Boy can I not wait for this. Between the Shame and the ALPS reviews, I’ve gotten all I needed from Venice. Can only go up from here, etc.

  • 9 9-04-2011 at 9:40 am

    DylanS said...

    I suspect Fassbender will have a dual-strand of a career, as so many actors do. He’ll do big mainstream projects and balance them with smaller, independent ones. His career up to this point is reminding me a great deal of Christian Bale’s.

  • 10 9-04-2011 at 10:52 am

    red_wine said...

    I was less gung-ho about Hunger than you (I found it a bit too myopic and contained) but definitely looking forward to Shame. I was impressed with McQueen and would like to see his work further. And of course there’s the allure of another good performance by Fassbender. I do agree about his austerity, even in his best moments in Jane Eyre, he seemed he was holding something back and not going all out.

    DylanS – that comparison isn’t doing Fassbender any favors.

  • 11 9-04-2011 at 10:53 am

    Pope said...

    Man, I’m hyped. I absolutely loved Hunger, can’t wait to see this. Oh, and like Nick said, the Alps reviews have me excited as well, though I wasn’t particularly a fan of dogtooth, it still had its moments of greatness, and anything with a provocative sub ject matter thats getting such good reviews is gonna get me excited.

  • 12 9-04-2011 at 11:14 am

    Speaking English said...

    Am I the only one seriously irritated that this film has the same title as the classic Bergman picture? It’s not like he couldn’t have come up with something else…

  • 13 9-04-2011 at 11:28 am

    J. said...

    I went to art school with Beharie… she’s such a hard-working girl. So glad she’s finding traction.

  • 14 9-04-2011 at 12:19 pm

    The Other James D. said...

    I’m thrilled to know this film is as outstanding as I assumed it could be. Can’t wait to have the chance to view it. And I figured this wouldn’t be an Oscar contender, whether a release was rushed for America in early December/late November or gets a release circa spring 2012. (Any clues as to when we might receive it?)

    Aside from the most significant aspect of the film’s worth, I’m also quite eager to see this for other reasons. And I thank Anne Thompson for that:

    Fassbender has several scenes involving full-frontal nudity…

    Also, for you breeders:

    …and Mulligan has one of her own.

  • 15 9-04-2011 at 12:19 pm

    Liz said...

    Thanks for answering my questions, Guy. Keeping my fingers crossed for a positive “Tinker Tailor” review tomorrow!

  • 16 9-04-2011 at 12:26 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Indeed, there is equal-opportunity full-frontal nudity in the film, and plenty of it.

  • 17 9-04-2011 at 1:27 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Speaking English: And Bergman used the title when it already belonged to a 1917 silent, a 1932 Russian film, a 1963 Spanish film… what of it?

  • 18 9-04-2011 at 1:36 pm

    Dana Jones said...

    How was Mulligan’s singing? I’ve heard good things so far, but I must know your opinion!

  • 19 9-04-2011 at 1:39 pm

    The Other James D. said...

    Has anyone else ever heard her collaboration with Belle & Sebastian, “Write About Love”?

    http : / / www . youtube . com / watch?v=FDTUAgMu6VU

    Her voice lent itself really well to that track. So I’m eager to hear her crooning as well.

  • 20 9-04-2011 at 2:03 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Well, I do describe her musical number in the review. She’s good — a thin, pretty voice that sells the emotion of the song, in its alternative interpretation.

  • 21 9-04-2011 at 5:57 pm

    Simone said...

    Is Fassbender’s nude frontal scenes the reason for the NC-17? I tire of the too early Oscar talk, just let the film roll out in its true form, and let fate deal with it. Either way, it looks like we’re getting another future cult classic from McQueen/Fassbender.

  • 22 9-04-2011 at 6:41 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***And Bergman used the title when it already belonged to a 1917 silent, a 1932 Russian film, a 1963 Spanish film… what of it?***

    None have the long-lasting clout of the Bergman film. Also, once Bergman touches it I believe it should never be touched again. In addition I am biased.

  • 23 9-04-2011 at 8:11 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    I am definitely seeing this at NYFF. If I see only one film at NYFF this year, this is the one.

  • 24 9-05-2011 at 3:11 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Simone: I don’t think the film’s been rated yet, has it? If it were to get such a rating, it’d probably be for the full-frontal nudity of both leads — plus sex scenes that are plentiful, but not that racy. Then again, American censors are prudes.

  • 25 9-05-2011 at 12:35 pm

    Melina said...

    I strongly disagree about its Oscar prospects considering there is already campaigning for this movie. I think if it plays its cards right amid the competition, it might score Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress nominations. I know Carey technically is the lead but she could go easily go as supporting actress as well in this.

  • 26 9-05-2011 at 1:04 pm

    ePastorJames said...

    Although there’s always a possibility, Melina, I wouldn’t place money on it just yet….Not unless you’re making wagers for the 2012 Oscars, as I don’t believe it’ll get an American release rushed in time. Would be great if Fassbender benefited from such a campaign as well.

  • 27 9-05-2011 at 4:00 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I strongly disagree about its Oscar prospects considering there is already campaigning for this movie.

    I think you’re imagining things — the film doesn’t have a distributor yet, so where could the campaigning possibly be coming from? ;)

    Oh, and Fassbender is unequivocally the lead, not Mulligan.

  • 28 9-05-2011 at 4:49 pm

    Carman J. said...

    Saw it last night at the Chuck Jones Cinema. Thought it was complete nonsense. Arid, alienating, and pretentious.

    And Carey Mulligan singing “New York, New York” as slow as possible was ridiculous.

  • 29 9-05-2011 at 9:42 pm

    Jake G.!!!! said...

    Once again you write how much your in love with a film but your afraid to give it a four star review because YOUR STANDARDS ARE WAY TOO HIGH!

  • 30 9-05-2011 at 9:58 pm

    red_wine said...

    Guy: Good to hear. I also figured that Venice does not have Cannes’ idiotic “one film – one prize
    ” policy. I had previously thought that Shame was sure to win Best Actor so would not take the Lion, but it can very well take both now.

  • 31 9-05-2011 at 11:47 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Jake G: This again. I’m not “afraid” to give anything four stars. In this case, the review makes it clear that I have script issues with the film. As impressed as I am with the film, I think it’s imperfect, so why would I give it a perfect score? An all-or-nothing, rave-or-pan approach endangers the art of criticism.