Much has been made of Michael Fassbender‘s nude performance in Steve McQueen‘s Shame, as if he were the first gent to drop trou on screen. In reality, actors as diverse as Viggo Mortensen, Jason Segel, Peter Sarsgaard, Kevin Bacon, and Harvey Keitel have all unleashed their manhood upon audiences, to varying degrees of acclaim. What seems to separate Fassbender from the others is the ease with which his last name can be manipulated to accommodate a penis pun (although Bacon is surely runner up). As a result, more has been written about the Irish actor’s junk than any other cinematic schlong in recent memory, outdoing even Dr. Manhattan’s giant blue one from Watchmen.
Such penile-focused discourse suggests the film in which it is showcased isn’t exactly up to snuff, but that absolutely isn’t the case. Though many about to watch Shame will be tingling in anticipation to witness the Fassmember in action, most will sit through the end credits in awe of Michael’s subtle, heart-breaking performance, as well as McQueen’s assured, engrossing and hypnotic direction. Even those who don’t like the film will likely still feel awed (for reasons already mentioned far too many times in these two paragraphs alone).
Fassbender stars as Brandon, a high-functioning sex addict with no real interest in reality. Think Patrick Bateman without the murderous streak. His nondescript New York office job – one where he is supposedly rather important – is just a distraction from his ongoing quest for relief and release. Mornings, afternoons, and evenings are punctuated with self-gratifying visits to the restroom, online flirtations, random hook-ups with strangers, and plotted hook-ups with prostitutes. In an early sequence, he sexually devastates a married woman on the subway by intently training his piercing eyes on her for the entire trip. Brandon has no trouble finding suitable partners, but then, his definition of a ‘suitable’ partner is revealed to be fairly loose as the picture progresses.
His calculated yet tenuously-balanced world spins off its axis when two women enter his life. The first is his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a talented lounge singer recovering from a bad break-up, who unexpectedly drops in on Brandon looking for a place to sleep. The second is Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a co-worker who is clearly interested in a romantic relationship, but might prove to be a more complex, delicate, and emotionally perceptive bed-mate than Brandon is used to. As his life becomes more and more complicated – and the boundaries between he and his sister become more and more blurred – his persistent sexual desires grow to a defeaning roar, and he begins to seek satisfaction in an increasingly desperate fashion.
In the same way that Shame isn’t merely a vehicle for Fassbender’s genitals, McQueen’s film isn’t just about sexual addiction (but it’s surely the best one on the subject, at least until The Barney Stinson Story arrives). Its power lay in that which is left unsaid. Shame, above all, concerns the horrible, unspoken history shared between Brandon and Sissy, who abandoned their home as teenagers and cannot bear to even discuss the life-ruining events that unfolded there. Did Brandon’s appetite first emerge when he was a youth (and did he cruelly experiment upon his sister?), or is it the result of some terrible childhood abuse? Perhaps his needs aren’t of a pleasurable nature, but merely to obfuscate the poisonous memories in his head. Screenwriter Abi Morgan astutely leaves a great deal to our imagination, and allows the uncompromising and illuminating performers Fassbender and Mulligan to fill in the requisite blanks with their sibling ribaldry. Raves for Fassbender have been unanimous, but Mulligan deserves equal praise for confronting us with a side to her we’ve never seen; her frenzied, half-comic energy, her willingness to be naked around her brother, and an interminably long and deeply unsettling rendition of New York, New York all contribute to the mystery of their past.
Visual artist McQueen has no interest in gimmicky behind the camera; he has tricks up his sleeve, but each is employed to great effect. He even recalls his centrepiece from Hunger (also starring Fassbender) by once again featuring the actor in conversation – this time with Marianne – in a low-key but revelatory single take. The film’s intensely graphic climax – pun intended – borders on the histrionic, but it’s executed hauntingly (with an assist from composer Harry Escott). It may be hard to sympathise with the plight of a man as well endowed and frequently bed-bound as Brandon, but Shame‘s success rests on its ability to rise above the controversial talking points and be a thoughtful character drama about the lengths people go to dull pain. That being said, yes, ‘lengths’ is indeed another intended pun.
Shame arrives in Australian cinemas February 9, 2012.