By Noah Wunsch
"We're not bad people, we just come from a bad place," says Brandon's sister Sissy, and in that line lies the psyche of Steve McQueen's latest film Shame. Brandon, played by McQueen favorite Michael Fassbender, is an attractive, successful, charming, self-hating sex addict. He needs it. Loathes it. Loves it. Torments himself endlessly with the thought of women. The smell of women. The fantasy of women. Sneaks off to the bathroom during work. Picks up women in the high class and the low class, with little self awareness.
Sex for Brandon is easy in the pretense, but terrifying in execution. The pain lies in Fassbender's eyes. He's able to glaze over from scene to scene in what seems to be an impressively studied manner. Brandon does not zone out, he zones in.
Things go awry when Brandon's troubled sister, Sissy (Cary Mulligan), shows up out of the blue and uses Brandon's apartment as her squat den. She tries getting Brandon to deal with problems he'd rather roll up in dirty sheets and throw away in the alley.
McQueen has filmed a New York City thought to be dead by most. His scenes teem with grit and beauty, taking the audience behind the velvet ropes and into the denizens' lair. However, his closer scenes are the most powerful. Scenes between Fassbender and Mulligan are kept tight, shrinkwrapping the tension until it seems the camera might break, while the sex scenes are choreographed like a ballet. Head writhe. Leg extension. Back. Forth. Up. Down. Hips sway. Feet flex. They're lovely, but explicit in an extremely realistic way. In these shots McQueen is able to capture Brandon's struggle, as they're less sexy as they are uncomfortable. Indeed, Fassbender stares into the camera as he has sex with two women at once, such sickly despair on his face that he seems ragged.
It seems important to clarify: this film is not like Midnight Cowboy. It's not about an out of towner finding out how NYC can tear you down. This is not like The Last Tango in Paris. There's no "sexual education," no love in the sex. This is an NC-17 film that deals with a troubled individual who has found his way in life, but lost his humanity early on.
Photo credit: Actor Michael Fassbender in Shame. Photo By Abbot Genser, courtesy of Fox Searchlight
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