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Lives Of Paralyzing ‘Shame,’ For Reasons Unexplained

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
December 1, 2011

It was frantic sex that earned Shame an NC-17 rating, but this arty drama is mostly slow and methodical. And thoroughly unsexy.

The lengthy opening shot, as painstakingly composed as a Caravaggio, shows a naked man who’s perfectly still, and elegantly off center, amid impeccably rumpled blue sheets. Later, the guy’s troubled sister, an aspiring lounge singer, performs a slinking version of “New York, New York” that seems to last about half an hour. And the film’s keynote music is Bach as played by Glenn Gould, the notes lingering in the air like a death sentence.

In fact, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and Sissy (Carey Mulligan) have been condemned to lethal lives. He’s a sex addict; she’s prone to self-mutilation. Yet director Steve McQueen’s tidy design sense tends to trump the messiness of their plights.

McQueen studied art rather than film in school, and he has a taste for Old Master-style tableaux that recall the work of such fellow Brits as Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman. This was evident in his previous feature, the stunning Hunger, which also starred Fassbender. But that movie differs from Shame in crucial ways.

Hunger told the story, obliquely but effectively, of IRA member Bobby Sands, who starved himself to death in a British prison. His life and motivation are well known, so McQueen didn’t need to explain much, and his approach was more ritualistic than psychological. The movie balanced austere form with messy reality: It began with the IRA prisoners’ “dirty protest,” during which they coated their cells with their own excrement. Shame has some gamy moments, but nothing as fetid as that.

Also, the near-wordless Hunger featured one lengthy conversation, between Sands and a priest. The dialogue in that exchange, credited to McQueen and Irish playwright Enda Walsh, was sharper than anything in Shame, which was scripted by the director and Abi Morgan (Brick Lane, The Iron Lady).

At least Brandon isn’t a serial killer. A cold-eyed Manhattan executive who lives alone in an upscale but characterless apartment, he suggests American Psycho’s protagonist. But his assaults on contemporary emptiness involve not murder but hookers, pornography, masturbation and casual sex, all pursued with a resolve that can only be called grim. Brandon doesn’t hate women, and he even goes on a dinner date with a coworker (Nicole Beharie). Alas, an affair that begins with friendship just doesn’t work for him.

The key to understanding Brandon’s pathology, it initially seems, is Sissy. She’s much more open — and openly pained — than her brother. Sissy tries to console Brandon by saying, “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” But Shame never reveals that place. Instead, it substitutes a dire act for the emotional breakthrough the story needs.

If it’s ultimately disappointing, Shame is still a powerful experience, largely because of Fassbender and Mulligan. Portraying characters at opposite ends of the emotional scale, each is fearless and pitch-perfect. (In case their accents waver a little, we’re informed that they spent part of their childhoods in Ireland.) If suave, slightly scary Brandon and bubbly but damaged Sissy resemble real people, the credit goes more to the actors than the script.

There’s a logic to the movie’s look, which combines blue-tinted modernity with Renaissance-painting formality (and which is rendered superbly by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker, both Hunger veterans).

Like McQueen’s previous film, Shame is a parable of martyrdom. This time, though, Fassbender plays a man who suffers for no known cause. If a movie is going to make lust look this miserable, it should at least explain why. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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