Saturday, December 17, 2011

Love: Shame

What you know about Shame is that it's an NC-17 portrait of a sex addict.  To a teenager (or those who have never watched an Almodovar film) the taboo rating signifies something immediately forbidden.  There will be nudity, there will be sex that somehow qualifies as "more adult" than the MPAA's R-rating.  In all likelihood: there will be boobs.  It's true.  But, you know, where aren't there boobs?  So, the thing is that there will also be a penis flopping about somewhere. If you're lucky, it won't belong to Harvey Keitel. What gets overlooked, often times, is that simple body parts do not an NC-17 rating warrant. In the case of Shame, and, in my experience, the case of a great deal of NC-17 'serious' films (versus 'unrated'), anatomy is sullied.  Sexualized content is rarely sexy.  It will be somehow dirtied up, plot relevant, and often horribly unpleasant.  What this really means, apparently, is that when an NC-17 film actually makes it into a theater,  the combination of these elements will prove a great annoyance. Personally?  I was carded multiple times before the film started, the theater management felt the need to post detailed warnings as far out as the parking garage elevator that Shame contained content of a graphic nature, and the final usher to check my ID muttered "Good luck" as I walked in.  "Don't worry," I assured him, "I won't ask for my money back."
 As its title suggests, Shame is something other than an exercise in provocative titillation.  It is the story of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a handsome, successful, seemingly well-liked New Yorker who drifts from apartment to work to dimly lit clubs and back again.  He's polite and sociable in an unassuming way ; men enjoy his company, women blush when their eyes connect with his.  In a surprising scene, we watch Brandon assist in navigating the waters of the casual hookup for his buffoon of a boss.  He is not smarmy, he does not dance or go out of his way to catch the attention of the women this other man approaches.  Instead, he passively stands back, a reserved wing man there to support, though we'd assume this "whole scene isn't really his thing."  Like a different sort of American Psycho, Brandon appears at first to be a catch. What we learn, however, early on, is that Brandon's life is dedicated to the tragic, desperate, compulsive pursuit of sex.  His hard drives at work and at home are filthy, loaded with every variation on the act he can find.  Women are drawn to him, and he picks them up the second he walks away from his co-workers.  That's not enough, though.  No, Brandon must pay to watch women via webcam over breakfast, he plays host to an endless stream of hookers, he masturbates furiously multiple times a day and locks himself in public restroom stalls with what we can perceive as some regularity.  We don't understand his compulsions, or where they come from, only that they lead to his profound unhappiness.

All of this is Brandon's dirty, shameful secret.  So, naturally, when his screwed-up little sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves herself in, the rinse and repeat pattern of his indiscretions is disrupted.  Sissy has problems of her own, you see.  Her issues, like his, are dangerous and damaging.  We get the sense that Sissy's presence destroys Brandon.  Something about her frightens him, tears at the facade he has built and reminds him of some mysterious, obfuscated past.  "We're not bad people," Sissy insists, "we just come from a bad place."  The nature of that place is unknown.  There's a scar on their shared childhood.  Is it abuse? Is it incest?  All we know is that Sissy longs for someone to lean on, that she desperately wants her brother in her life while Brandon recoils at her proximity and pushes her away in an increasingly aggressive manner.  We get the sense that his frustrations are two-fold, that he must fight to repress himself in her presence in part because he must appear as strong as she is weak, but also because he is incapable of divorcing his compulsion from their bloodline, that her touch is a guilt-charged temptation.
Sissy is a frustrating character for the audience as well, in part because she's so desperately manic that she becomes nothing more than mere device.  Carey Mulligan serves her purpose well here. She launches herself physically into the role and embodies a level of needy vulnerability that's almost grotesque.  Yet, though she's the impetus behind a few wrenching scenes, it's hard not to see her as merely a rogue element in Brandon's life.  When Sissy is present, Brandon's unhappiness is amplified into violent, self-reflective/destructive rage.  Fassbender is spellbinding to watch.  Shame is fueled by moments of frenzied angst.  It's deliberately over-the-top in quiet, unhappy ways that seem familiar.  Yet, while aspects of the film may seem to damn it to some sort categorization as a sensationalized tale of alienation and addiction, Fassbender is capable of single-handedly elevating everything to another level.  The physicality of the performance is matched by an almost frightening ability to tap into the emotional depth of this damaged character.  As we watch Brandon, we find ourselves caring about him though he seems incapable of caring about himself.  We know that he should be repellent, that he is cold, distant, and partially inhuman.  Yet, Brandon is predatory in an odd way.  Fassbender takes what could be an empty shell and transforms him into a sympathetic man.  He is vulnerable, childlike, and awkward when he finds himself in the presence of someone he does care about. The sex acts themselves are shrouded in pain.  There is a scene, at one point late in the film, where the eye of the camera meets with the eyes of Brandon as he engages in another affair.  What we see there bears no sign of pleasure.  He is in absolute misery, and this one glance is simply devastating.
 Misery permeates everything Brandon does and every place he goes, and Shame captures its character's fragile psyche in its cinematography.  It's a cold, beautiful film that belongs to the same New York City that gave us Black Swan last year-- a humorless dimension of darkened melodrama and excess.  This is not a vibrant metropolis.  It is not alive, or good.  It is a death trap painted here, by McQueen, as a sensory deprivation chamber.  The muted colors and minimal dialogue somehow strip away the presence of the camera though, counter-intuitively, shots are oft framed in an obviously exacting way. Brandon, too, aspires to be perfect.  He wants to hide, to commit his sins in private and save face. Of course, Black Swan ran camp, on occasion, bursting with absurd histrionics, and artful interpretations of the horror genre.  Shame is, in some ways, hard to believe itself.  Though it's largely a cooler, more restrained narrative than Aronofsky's film, its primary currency is that same melodrama.  Brandon (Michael Fassbender) would have probably run into Nina Sayers on the subway.  He probably would have stared at her longingly.  He likely would have tried to seduce her into a quick tryst in a boutique hotel or darkened alley.  Yet, the affair would be dispassionate.  It would be a temporary solution to a potential unsolvable problem.  And so, it continues.

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