Shame (shām) 1 a painful feeling of guilt for improper behaviour, etc. 2 dishonour or disgrace 3 something regrettable or outrageous – this is how the dictionary puts it. But shame can come in a sour cocktail mix of all of these definitions.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) has a particular case of shame. He lives in New York, has his own apartment and an okay job. Yet, he seems trapped by the very pleasures this particular life set-up puts in his lap. Brandon goes out every night and comes back home with a different girl. There is all kinds of girl-action waiting for him on his laptop (“Do you wanna play?” asks a girl from a webcam). He has 24/7 access to a prostitute, because New York is after all the city that doesn’t sleep. Brandon is definitely not sleeping either.
Shame is director Steve McQueen’s second film; his first, 2008’s Hunger, also starred Michael Fassbender in what was a breakthrough performance for the actor. Brandon is a sex addict on the constant verge of a breakdown, especially when his estranged sister Sissy (a ravishing Carey Mulligan) decides to come live with him.
The movie follows Brandon on his prowls, which sometimes begin with intense stare-downs in the subway and end with him pouncing at his prey, like a panther hunting for survival. Although he is handsome and charming, Brandon’s sexual escapades aren’t romantic, but purely animalistic and spurn from some explosive need he has to satisfy. He doesn’t seem to have control over it, and there is definitely something to be said (or shushed) about the relationship with his sister. Throughout the movie there is an electrifying tension between Fassbender and Mulligan’s characters, as both are struggling with their own inner form of weirdness. Brandon is self-destroying through his sex addiction and Sissy is self-destroying by cutting her wrists and being generally depressed and in need of protection. “We aren’t bad people. We just come from a bad place,” she tells her brother.
Shame is a brave movie dealing with a disease that is often laughed at in tabloids, and that is not all it’s cracked up to be. Sex addiction is portrayed as not about having an immense sexual appetite, but rather about a burning need to basically explode in physical, but not mental, ecstasy. For Brandon women are a point of entry, period. And the worst part is, he can’t help it. “Your hard drive is filthy. I mean, it is dirty,” his boss tells him as Brandon’s face is struck with panic. It is clear that he is actually physically in pain when his sister is around and is trying really hard to remain calm, and pushes her away every time she tries to hug him or get near him. This is never elaborated on in the movie, but it just goes to show how animalistic our basic instincts really are. We are the ones who have to force the boundaries.
Fassbender gives a gripping performance that is deserving of the Oscar buzz it is generating. It is by far the bravest of the year, and it remains to be seen whether the Academy isn’t too faint at heart for it. Brandon is part creep, part charmer, and he knows it. It is quite unsettling to watch him during his escapades, and McQueen doesn’t try to make it easy for the audience either. Shame begins right away with a good 30 second shot of Fassbender laying in bed and just breathing. Then he gets up and walks around his apartment naked. The camera is a voyeur, zooming in on more than just faces, not only at the beginning of the movie, but throughout. There are shots of just flesh, or close-ups of his face, perhaps further emphasizing that nothing else is on Brandon’s mind. Nothing, besides a deep unsettling feeling of shame.
By Radina Papukchieva
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