Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Hannah Ware, Nicole Beharie, Elizabeth Masucci
Years ago, when the NC-17 rating was first created, it was serious-minded, almost grim explorations of adult sexuality like “Shame” that its champions no doubt had in mind. Of course, along came the campy “Showgirls,” which didn’t help matters. Mostly, though, the NC-17 rating was a non-starter for Hollywood studios not only because they tend to instinctively shy away from art and controversy like a cat avoids rain, but also because many newspapers — bowing to the tom-toms of local morality police — refused to carry advertising for NC-17 films, which made their attempted distribution more of a hassle than they were worth, frankly.
In the intervening years, of course, the Internet has changed life and commerce, not the least of which with its readily accessible graphic depictions of sexual intercourse. Simultaneously, sexual compulsion and all other manner of addiction have gone mainstream — via VH-1’s “Celebrity Rehab” and “Sober House,” among other outlets — and so the table has been set for something like “Shame,” a very glum, austere putative snapshot of modern emotional disconnection co-written by director Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan.
The film stars Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan, a white collar New York City guy whose extreme and seemingly insatiable sexual proclivities — he frequents prostitutes, he’s wrecked his office computer with porn, and he chronically masturbates in a manner more furious than blissful — have taken over his life. Brandon is extremely isolated, without any friends to speak of. The one semi-acquaintance he does have is his boss David (James Badge Dale), who, though married, hits on chicks in a second-nature manner, like breathing. This fact further exacerbates problems caused by the sudden arrival of Brandon’s wayward sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), when David picks up on her and enters into a fling.
Fassbender and Los Angeles Film Critics Association New Generation Award winner McQueen previously collaborated on 2008’s “Hunger,” a movie with a similarly ascetic design and chilly vibe. That film, about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, featured an unbroken, 17-minute take in its middle, and while “Shame” doesn’t completely mimic that captured stageplay aesthetic, it does unfurl at an unambiguous remove, including a confrontation between Brandon and Sissy that unfolds in a single shot from behind. It largely lacks, however, the historical mooring that gave “Hunger” some of its punching power.
“Shame” has some value or merit as a more or less honest exploration of the reach of adolescent sexual abuse and trauma, and the adult dysfunction and acting out that such problems can create without treatment. But its subtextual markers are obvious (Chic’s “I Want Your Love” makes a soundtrack appearance, to underscore the notable lack of true intimacy in Brandon’s life), and its narrative arc kind of banal. The power and hold of addiction — be it via drugs, sexual compulsion or whatever else — lies in the fact that the acting out for a good period of time works, as an emotional salve and substitute. “Shame” never shows the audience any real evidence of Brandon’s disease working for him, only a downward spiral with a few elliptical hints at a nasty past (“We’re not bad people, we just came from a bad place,” says Sissy in the movie’s sole, half-hearted concessionary stab at catharsis). Ergo, there’s no emotional involvement or sense of powerful revelation — just a mild, chilly appreciation, from a distance.
With its copious (male and female) nudity, McQueen’s film seems created chiefly to court praise of its “braveness,” which isn’t to say that Mulligan or Fassbender’s performances lack in focus or commitment. His output over the past several years — inclusive of “Inglourious Basterds,” “Jane Eyre,” “X-Men: First Class,” “A Dangerous Method” and this, among many other films — have shown Fassbender to be the rarest of commodities: a movie-star-in-waiting with serious acting chops and a preternatural understanding of and gift with nuance. And Mulligan, with the faintest trace of baby fat still rounding out her cheeks, has a face that captures and conveys a tremendous vulnerability. Still, in “Shame” they’re stuck in a vehicle that mistakes hermetic artfulness for insight — characters whose stories remain frustratingly incomplete.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.