Shame (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Shame (2011)

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"That month I touched myself every night in my narrow bed and came thinking of you,
knowing all the while that I was planting the seeds of a fresh disaster.
The disaster did not come then, but it did come later."
-Maggie Nelson, Bluets-

The perils of dramatic irony lie in setting the stage and delivering the payoff.  For much of the first half of Shame, the pieces were maneuvered skillfully.  Brandon (Michael Fassbender) lives a sheltered, private life of privelege and sexual addiction.  He keeps his coworkers at a distance, has few friends, and ignores the taunting calls of his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan).

She is every bit his polar reflection.  Whatever the family curse is, Sissy wears it openly, for better or worse.  "What happened to your hands?", Brandon's boss asks when trying to pick her up, "When I was a kid I was bored."

"You must have been really bored."

So the hints are left, rather tantalizingly, as to what happened to Brandon and Sissy to make them this way.  But what was once hinted grows slowly more irrelevant, and instead of observing the subtle irony of Brandon's addiction, it makes itself more apparent, climaxing in a series of seemingly never-ending shots of moaning and classical music, unaware the effect of offsetting one with the other has long passed.

Shame is clearly made by an artist, Steve McQueen, who is the heir apparent to the films of Ingmar Bergman.  Rather than the chamber plays in old castles and seemingly empty mansions, McQueen utilizes the lonely amber hues of a secluded corner in a nightclub, or the dull haze in Brandon's lonely apartment.  Memories of a happy past brother and sister never had linger in the background, fuzzy photographs and cartoons never there to be enjoyed, all while they lean closer together in such a manner their parents must have forgotten to correct when they were younger.

McQueen is toying with many of the same themes as well.  Among the psychological trauma Brandon and Sissy are clearly trying to deal with they are plunged into a myriad of sexual inadequacies, torturous emotions, and intense struggles with identity.  None of these issued will be unfamiliar to those who have seen Cries and Whispers or Persona, but McQueen still manages to make them as effective here by relying on the impressive and nearly silent performance from Michael Fassbender.

In Fassbender, McQueen has found his Max Von Sydow, or to use a more contemporary example, the Dicaprio to his Scorsese.  The camera trusts Fassbender to hint at just the right level of self-disgust, unbridled lust, and unfulfilled pleasure when the mood strikes (and it strikes often).  He is not given any flashy scenes to tear the celluloid to pieces, but carries the film on his sad shoulders.

Mulligan is doing something just as complex and toying with her identity as another heir-apparent, but this time invoking the similarities to Audrey Hepburn early in her career.  She shows up dressed in one of Hepburn's hats but in a nearly blood red hue, performing lounge songs with a piano which barely seems to want to touch her voice, in a dress meant to remind us of the sexual object Marilyn Monroe was paraded around as in Some Like It Hot.  Sissy has too many identities, thrusting the worst of them onto Brandon, and parading the rest for a revolving set of suitors to try on.

Of course, Brandon and Sissy are disastrous for each other in ways which are too strongly utilized in those visual and dialogue clues early on.  I did not expect, or really wish, to have a tearful scene where the horrors of their past come to light and insight is shared with all.  What I didn't want is the same scene of disgust and shame repeated in slight variations throughout a well put together but otherwise redundant second half.

Brandon enters his spiral, or just another repetition of his spiral, and for seemingly endless moments he drifts from encounter to dalliance with no end in sight.  Given his past, and the ultimate outcome of this night, this is no surprise and almost suddenly we see the ending to the film as plainly as it started.  Brandon becomes less someone prone to violent fits of shame and sexual addiction and more a prop to serve up a conclusion McQueen and writer Abi Morgan fostered on him from the beginning.

Like Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Tree of Life, Shame is one of the true artistic achievements of 2011, even if my own reception is less than warm.  What I'm less sure of is how much more we can really say about it.  MMMM wonders if we can ever escape our pasts, Tree asks if we can ever understand the machinations of existence, but Shame provides the answer to Brandon's spiral in Sissy's arms.

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Shame (2011)

Directed by Steve McQueen.
Screenplay by McQueen and Abi Morgan.
Starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. This is a pretty messed up movie, but deserves to be considering the material that they’re working with here is pretty messed up already. Fassbender does a terrific job here and probably gave the best performance of the year, in my opinion. How he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar this year is a total mind-blower to me. Good review Andrew.

    • Thanks for the comment Dan. As much as I was disappointed by the film, Fassbender is absolutely stunning. I’m still championing Michael Shannon in Take Shelter for the best performance of 2011, but Fassbender’s subtle work is a very strong contender.

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