Shame Is Worth Much, Much More than the NC-17 Stamp and Snide Penis Remarks
By Kristin Battestella
Upscale Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) seems to have it all- great job, swanky apartment, awesome New York nights on the town with a cool boss (James Badge Dale). Unfortunately, his perfect façade hides a depraved addiction to sex in all its forms at home, at work, and on the streets. When Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to New York and crashes on his couch, Brandon’s convenient life of call girls and internet porn spirals out of control. Can a normal relationship with coworker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) save Brandon from his inner turmoil and self-destructive behavior? Or will the escalating tensions and shared past with his sister unravel Brandon completely?
So, I head to the cinema way too early in some strange fear that Steve McQueen’s new and personally much anticipated sex drama Shame will be sold out. During my inevitable wait, I stopped in the Flyers Skatezone next door to see if any pro hockey players were there practicing, but alas no. So, I called my Dad instead. (I bought him a Christmas present in the pro shop, but we’ll just skip that part!)
“I’m at the rink next to the movies,” I said.
“What are you going to see?”
“Shame? What’s that about?”
“Um…addiction…kind of…” Really, how do you explain this film to your father?
“Why do you want to see that?”
“Well…because Michael Fassbender is being touted for an Oscar for it.”
“Oh. He was really good in that. I like him. The guy can act, that’s for sure. Okay. Enjoy your show.”
This will be either a really short review, or a really long one. Right now, I don’t know which, as I would totally love to talk in the finite about Shame but don’t want to spoil so limited a release. Actually, I kind of don’t want to talk about it as well. Artist and Hunger director Steve McQueen wonderfully uses unusual mixes of dialogue and filmmaking, with long silences or musical interludes and alternating intercuts. The seemingly unbalanced editing is a visual reflection of Brandon’s excessive lows, and the distorted timeline builds both a conventional plot and nontraditional storytelling. There are no special effects or flashy herky jerky in your face camera jobs, but Shame is up close and personal for the audience nonetheless thanks to the tight photography and great single conversation scenes. The viewer is, like in A Christmas Carol, at the character’s onscreen elbow. Brandon is our unwilling avatar as Shame rises surprisingly to its inevitable head. (I should also warn you now, that everything I write sounds like a dang penis pun, which I am not intentionally trying to do, so out of the gutter!) I think some of the negative criticism against Shame is that it’s generic or lightweight on the scripting or not that unexpected. Yes, Shame is not super shocking as I think some thought thanks to the NC-17 rating- I’ve seen far more graphic content in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road and Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. Like Hunger before it, there’s no shock and awe for the sake of it or beating the audience over the head with heavy-handed explanations and metaphors.
The dialogue isn’t porn nasty smutty, either. Again, I’ve heard far worse in violent action films, men, their guns, and their ‘Fuck you, you pussy!’ Shame’s script is actually verbally tame now that I think of it, allowing the actions and expressions of the cast to say much, much more. It is a quiet film, despite having its players cry out in so many ways. I didn’t find Shame that explicit, just somewhat uncomfortable to watch. We know something isn’t right with Brandon, but we can’t quite put our finger on it. We like him, feel for him, there’s no reason to dislike him, but he is creepy and sad nonetheless. Good old New York looks the same way, would be beautiful, but bittersweet. How does that old adage go? You’re in a city surrounded by people and yet never feel so alone. Not to contradict McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), but Shame doesn’t seem about sex addiction as much as it does intimacy. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m a little miffed at all the interviewers and Shame press that made all the ‘balls out’, ‘exposed’, and ‘stripped down’ jokes, as this film strikes at the heart of why we are becoming more and more interconnected yet driving each other further and further apart.
Brandon, however, seems stuck in some sort of childhood trauma with cartoons and juvenile behavior. While the soundtrack for Shame is very sweet and I do love the looks of Brandon’s record collection, one has to wonder why he likes the music he does. His apartment is bare except for that wall of records, what year does he really live in? Brandon is trapped in a very dark place, and Michael Fassbender goes there with him, indeed. Fassbender’s style, mannerisms, and idiosyncrasies define Brandon’s carefully orchestrated façade. He wears the same combination of gray pants and jacket and blue shirt and scarf for most of the picture. As Brandon sinks to further sexual escapades- despite tossing out mounds of porn which surely goes back years, maybe even decades- we spiral along in the destruction. When he tries to behave normally, Brandon can’t, and continues the cycle with more. I absolutely love Fassbender’s near crying during the three-way sex scene- his best parts in the film may be when he doesn’t say anything verbal at all. This is rough, hot, orgasmic sex- people would pay huge amounts of money to see or participate in a Cathouse event like this! Yet this desperate accumulation in search of some sort of unattainable climax is literally making Brandon die inside. He gets off, eventually, sure, but in actuality feels nothing- or worse pain- for what is our most treasured intimacy.
When he should feel something, caring, compassion, or love for others, Brandon can’t or won’t. I love Fassbender’s implication that Brandon doesn’t eat, only drinks, drugs, or caffeines as needed to keep his sex drive going. Fassy wonderfully portrays this bottomless vessel, a haunting beauty that sex should fill or wash clean, but sinks down deeper and deeper. I don’t mean to get philosophical or abstract, but Brandon is a sex vampire, draining himself of his own soul. The viewer feels pity for Brandon and can’t turn away no matter how difficult it becomes to watch. This is man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself at its finest, and it is all encapsulated in Michael fucking Fassbender. 300, Hunger, Fish Tank, Inglourious Basterds, Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method- if you don’t like Michael Fassbender by now, then I have nothing more to say to you. And now after having finally seen Shame, I feel kind of dirty, dazed, confused. People really live like this?
I suspect that if Shame had been about a female sex addict, its wicked NC-17 reception would have been handled quite differently. We used to use the word nymphomaniac in terms of how it was a hot hot hottie woman who needed to be satisfied at any length for more more more! Brandon, though by definition a nymphomaniac or beyond satryism, is the complete opposite of our sex addiction perceptions. Most people think its Charlie Sheen being tiger blood badass cool, we lift up the sex, drugs, and rock n roll lifestyle. Were it Sissy who was the sex addict in Shame, I don’t think it would have received an NC-17 rating. A woman tackling such a serious topic would be lauded and acclaimed and still be considered powerful and sexy even in the ugliness of the topic. There would be no question of hardware for a female sexual twist, look at Boys Don’t Cry or Monster. Though Fassbender has received his deserved share of hardware for Shame- his second BIFA after Hunger and the Coppa Volpi at the Venice Film Festival among them- everyone and their grandma who’s speculating on his Oscar chances has to add all the Hollywood politics and avante garde caveats to the possibility of his nomination or win. Why is there a male double standard at play here? Is not stellar performance stellar performance regardless of discomfort or taboos?
All this attention of course is being paid to Fassbender, but Carey Mulligan (An Education) is far from fluff. Sissy is simply awesome, full of needy and heart wrenching expression- particularly in her already acclaimed ‘New York, New York’ rendition. Even with the Fassy glory, one of stern constitution and psychology could study Shame exclusively from Sissy’s angle. She has twisted issues all her own- she clearly needs help that Brandon cannot give, nor does he even notice the medical bracelet on her arm or hear her desperate phone calls unless they are annoying him. Sissy is the definition of utterly emotional, wearing her need for affection for any man who will take it. For being so similarly tormented by their past, these siblings are also perfectly against each other. Again, this question of intimacy is at the forefront with Sissy and Brandon. Why is she so ready to be intimate with anyone, even him on some latent level? Why is he so in-intimate that he is almost inanimate? What shared and scarring intimacy already possesses them? The near violent and pseudo sexual scenes between them are awesome. You almost wonder if Brandon is going to sexually assault Sissy just as you suspect she might slash him, too. There are so many little hints about their relationship, from the way neither sibling tries to cover themselves around each other to why Brandon cries during her song. What did he come to New York to escape from? In a way, these two are meant for each other, they should be able to heal their shared brokenness together, and yes, I know that sounds too Lannister nasty! However, what could have been a disturbing incestuous angle for the sake of the scandal is wonderfully dealt with in frank, raw honesty. I love how in one lengthy two shot argument; you can see the mark Fassbender leaves on Mulligan’s face. Seriously, why isn’t she getting more awards talk? Shame requires a female lead to match Fassbender’s tour de force blow by blow, and Mulligan delivers 110%.
Likewise, James Badge Dale (Rubicon) and Nicole Beharie (American Violet) provide great outside support. Dale’s boss David is quite the opposite of Brandon. Where Brandon represents the mirror we don’t want to look into, David is the picture we tape to the glass to fool ourselves. He doesn’t have it together when they go out on the town to pick up women- but his family and top job success seem to be the ideal Brandon should be striving for instead of the porn symphony. Yet David is obviously not as cool as he thinks he is, and his adultery and misogynistic view of women isn’t necessarily that much healthier than Brandon’s addiction. Everybody in this film is messed up sexually when you think about it. I hadn’t seen Beharie before, but she is all kinds of nice. Sassy, confident- and not making any graces about her station in life like David. Marianne has no problem with being open and honest like Sissy nor being sexually provocative like Brandon. She does however, seem to wear her raw better than the others. Even if some wonder about her sexual confidence being too confident- she ditches work and goes to an exhibitionist hotel to have sex with a relative stranger- the sex scene between Beharie and Fassbender is probably the best one of the film. It’s beautiful, even loving, and sexy as a sex scene in a film should be which is markedly different from every other sex scene in Shame. It’s natural, passionate, slightly wild in the desire- and yet, this scene also encompasses everything that is wrong with Brandon. Really, wonderful stuff by the cast all around, and props as well to all those other naughty people!
Now then, unless I am doing a group critique or a viewing list, I never start a review file early- as I was so tempted to do for Shame thanks to all these NC-17 issues. My gosh, you know, The Fassy Wang is actually barely there, flapping about as he walks back and forth in first 5 minutes, whoopiefuckingdo! Honestly, I suspect the NC-17 slap was more likely given for the gay club scene and the length of the three-way sex. Maybe I spoiled myself or perhaps Shame is a little lightweight as some critics say, but I’ve seen worse needless blood, sex, nudity, drug use, and gore. Not just in Hard R films, either, but in sexy PG-13 films and even on standard cable television- when I was a kid, this was a scandal the likes of sneaking out to watch Porky’s! Now a lot of this saucy sex and violence is expressly geared toward teens. If you are going to show pride and a reclaiming of the adult rating for Shame, then you better get your priorities straight on where the line between R and NC-17 lies. Had Hunger been rated by the MPAA, I think it would also have been NC-17. There’s more penis and far worse brutality, but these extremes are also not for the desensitizing shock of it all. McQueen used all human tools available to create the aspects of prison torment, and only a very small percentage look at Hunger just to say Fassy Wang! Why should Shame be any different?
Frankly, I thought the urinating was more bizarre, but I’m glad SMQ shows us the complete Spartan (hehe, no 300 pun intended!) sex life of Brandon before we meet Sissy- if only to get any giggles or inhibitions out at the door. Fassy’s hung, yeah, he has lots of meaningless sex, and it is all okay until his sister arrives, let’s move on to the point of the tale, shall we? Some may also be displeased with the unexplained slice of life nature of Shame, but I like it. We spend this utmost time with Brandon and it is intense. The rating means certain audiences should shy away from the intensity, yet we also want everything shockingly there and explained and dumbed down to impressive visuals as in today’s horror. I like that Shame closes with possibility. Is Brandon any better off at the end then he was at the start? Did this time mean anything to him? If not, what did we just spend the last hour and half doing? I suppose some audiences might be angry if they think it was all a big waste, but like the ratings brouhaha, this is an outward statement mainstream Hollywood is not going to like. How many times a week-even a day- do we waste hours with television, the internet, sex, drugs, rock n roll, and any other potential idolatries or vices? He has a dick, he leaves it hanging out a lot until his sister arrives and forces him to realize that having his dick out all the time is kind of weird. That is the within within statement Shame is making. We should be so shocked-we are if the NC-17 rating is true- yet we see far, far worse on a daily basis- and that is becoming more and more comfortable to us. That’s weird, too, isn’t it?
Brandon is like us, we are he. That is what is so uncomfortable, and frankly unsellable. Those looking for hard-core material thanks to the scarlet NC-17 may not find it and feel Shame is a let down. This is not titillating, nor is it a brutal rape or victimizing violence. A Rated R film will make money. But a thesis on how constantly unfulfilling and painful orgasms make Brandon both unable to live without The Ring of Sex whilst hating his Gollum self for it- this is not going to be popular. Is Brandon beyond redemption? Despite the anonymous sex and self-hatred, he’s not a bad guy. It’s not his fault, it is? Fassbender gloriously shows tragedy, trauma, and corruption up close- which is where the camera is most of the time in the sex scenes- on Brandon’s face. This is a depressing and unentertaining piece, and the NC-17 was Hollywood’s brush off attempt in protection of its bottom line. Bravo to Shame then for beating Hollywood at its own game.
For those interested in that positive reception and audience numbers, my theater was in the second tier of limited release for Shame. There were under 25 people, about a quarter full, for this first 11:30 a.m. Friday showing. I was surprised the audience was almost all older folks with only a handful of women and younger adults; though I don’t know if this is because of the senior programs at this particular theater or not. The NC-17 was blazed all over the marquee and signage in red lettering and warned that ID must be shown. Since I look like I am 12 and still get lollipops when I go to the drive thru at the bank, I had my license ready. The older ticket lady just glanced at it briefly, I think because provisional licenses for drivers under 18 or 21 here look different from a regular ID.
“One for Shame, please,” I said.
Then I realized what kind of sentence that was, and said to the lady, “I bet you don’t hear that every day.”
I could still here the lady laughing as snooped in the lobby. Posters were up for Fassbender’s other sex drama A Dangerous Method, due here in January, but naturally, there was no outside Shame advertising. As to the trailers, The Artist looks good, as do the previously unknown to me but artsy heavy Miss Baja and Pariah. The Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy preview was kind of ambiguous, only focusing on Gary Oldman and not using the rest of the star power, but they can’t really give everything away there. In a strange case of appropriate previews, I’ll probably see all of them eventually, just perhaps not at the cinema. It felt weird leaving the theater and coming back into the daylight after seeing Shame- it is after all, a dark, uncomfortable ride Brandon takes us on!
Shame is a great movie, even if it feels a bit inferior to Hunger. Death and starvation were on McQueen and Fassbender’s side then, along with a nothing to loose obscure abandon. Though Fassy has now exploded and it is a little sad to loose an actor to the mainstream sex symbol status, the Academy simply cannot ignore him now without looking like the political prudes they really are. Fans of the cast should see Shame at any available opportunity. It won’t be the NC-17 that puts audiences off of the film, but Shame’s own uncompromising nature makes it tough to see more than once. Witness your own raw, interactive frailty, and experience Shame’s film finery ASAP.
Whew, I guess it was long. Shit! The review! The review was long! Dang friggin’ penis puns!