Friday, December 23, 2011

He Can't Help Himself: SHAME

It would be a mistake to call Shame’s Brandon Sullivan a hedonist. His life is controlled and partitioned, a place for everything and everything in its place. He’s a fairly successful office worker who goes to work in an anonymous New York City office building and then returns to his spare apartment with a minimum of complications. It’s a life of quiet desperation, for the man has arranged his life so carefully in order to hide his darkest, most shameful addiction. He’s not an alcoholic, though he does like to drink. He’s not a womanizer, though he loves flirtatious pursuit. No, he’s a sex addict. For him, it’s not about relationships. It’s not about the pleasure anymore. It’s not even about meeting new people or finding some small moment of solace from his lonely, meaningless life. It’s about the desperate need to feel something, to constantly seek new sources of stimulus, about clandestine, risky tendencies that drive him to find someone, anyone, to help him get his next fix.

Of course, the film’s not really interested in exploring sex addiction, at least not in any truly meaningful or distressing way. Wouldn’t it be all the more disturbing to be a sex addict who wasn’t as handsome and capable of charm as one Michael Fassbender? The terrific European actor has had something of a Hollywood breakthrough year after first catching eyes with his art house success in the 2008 IRA hunger strike drama Hunger and crossover scene stealing as World War II’s coolest film critic in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds. This year alone he was Jane Eyre’s Rochester, Carl Jung, and proto Magneto. His performance in Shame is without a doubt the most fearless of his roles this year. It’s a portrait of a desperate man who hides his basest addictions under a calm, hesitantly charming mask of dignified yuppie tranquility. It’s little wonder why women would be attracted to him and why he wouldn’t let them stick around long enough to figure out who he really is.

Unfortunately, there is one woman in his life in a position to figure it out. That’s his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a fragile and aimless young woman who shows up unexpectedly at his apartment one afternoon. She’s been kicked out of wherever she had been and needs a place to stay. She’s a singer. She says she’s making real money now. She just needs a warm place to pass the time between gigs. She just needs the comfort and care of someone. Brandon’s rattled by her appearance. He tries his best to hide his discomfort and his addiction. She gets enough hints, though. It’s not an easy thing to hide a life given over entirely to basest pursuits, especially in such a furtive, urgent way.

Brandon’s boss (James Badge Dale) is a typical macho womanizer, constantly hitting on waitresses and commenting on women’s bodies. For some reason, that’s behavior that doesn’t fall too far outside the norm. Because Brandon’s desires take a compulsive, secretive, insatiable form, it reads as depressive, as a man trying to cover up ambiguous psychological problems with physical sensation. One of the most thrilling sequences in the film, a string of moments that have extraordinarily simple suspense and humor, involves Brandon going on a date with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie) and trying to have normal conversation, to open up emotionally with another human being. In the process, he has to withhold his urges, resist slipping up and inadvertently revealing how he spends his time. It’s difficult for him to be without a clear view to his next hit.

British artist Steve McQueen, who directed Fassbender in Hunger, has made a tightly controlled film with a detached clinical eye. It’s a film that is extraordinarily well made on every technical level. Harry Escott’s pounding score and the still, smooth compositions that gain a sinuous power with each camera movement from cinematographer Sean Bobbitt contribute to a skillful evocation of a man who’s every waking moment is given over to his addiction, finding more avenues to find what he wants or ways to cover up and otherwise make possible the maintenance of a “normal” life.  This is a powerfully acted film, with Fassbender and Mulligan exuding a kind of neediness and an intimate shared trauma that’s as concerning and strangely symbiotically damaged as any relationship on film in recent memory. These are characters with deeply felt problems from their pasts that are not easily resolved in their present circumstances. They’re aware of the damage. They may even be aware of the consequences. But they’re powerless to fix themselves, let alone help each other.

The only thing holding the film back is its thematic game of Mad Libs. It’s a film not just open to interpretation; it’s open to any interpretation. I love sparse narratives and exercises in style as much as the next guy, but here McQueen pushes the fuzziness of character to a detrimental extreme. The relationship between Brandon and Sissy is ripe for analysis. At one point she tells him, “we came from a bad place, but that doesn’t make us bad people.” So, they have a shared past that is also a troubled past. What does that mean? What are Sissy’s emotional problems? Fill in past trauma here. What is Brandon’s problem? Fill in psychological explanation here. From what kind of “bad place” do they come? Fill in backstory here. You get to pick whatever problems you want to read into them. The ambiguity is at once thrilling and frustrating, as if McQueen had such a killer idea for a film that he didn’t want to risk saying too much thematically for fear of being called on the vacant ideas the end result covers up only too well.

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