- Movie Rating -

Shame (2011)

| December 1, 2011 | 0 Comments

The most intriguing films about sex, for me, are the ones that deal with the people involved. The act itself is merely acrobatics, any idiot with a camera can shoot genitals in action, but it takes a film artist to put meaning behind those acts. Such was the case with Wayne Wang’s brilliant 2001 drama The Center of the World, which dealt with a man hiring a prostitute for a weekend arrangement then falling in love with her. Or there was Louis Malle’s Damage, about an English politician who begins a sexual affair with his son’s fiancé. What those films have in common is that there were real emotions at stake. The sex was athletic but there was a danger to what they were doing. I think that is what Steve McQueen’s Shame is shooting for. It wants to be the kind of edgy drama that deals squarely with meaningless nihilistic sex that ultimately destroys two people. The problem is that it can’t find a foothold to get us involved.

Michael Fassbinder, the most ubiquitous actor of 2011 with roles in X-Men: First Class, Jane Eyre, A Dangerous Method and this film, plays Brandon Sullivan an unapologetically voracious sex addict who lives a lifestyle that is carved out just for this addiction. His vast New York apartment, with its antiseptic white walls, is spare and lifeless, containing only what he needs. When he isn’t working, he’s home on the computer Skyping virtual sex with various women. When he’s out, he usually brings someone home (It isn’t hard to believe, he is a good-looking man). He’s so arrogant that he has no shame in parading his endowment in front his over-sized picture window, or having sex with various partners in broad daylight where everyone within a six block radius can see them. Surprisingly, no one calls the cops.

His life is a routine of real sex, virtual sex, masturbation, prostitutes and fetishes. Yet, to him, it seems to have worn down into a pattern so familiar as to become lifeless. He has sex, it ends, the partner goes home, Brandon goes to bed. That’s it. There’s no real seduction at all. He has become so schooled at picking up women, that he can make eye-contact with a woman on the subway and get her aroused without ever saying a single word. Brandon’s entire sex life is laid out in scenes that only resemble day-to-day life. There doesn’t really seem to be all that much excitement.

Brandon, we sense right away, is a cold-hearted bastard. What emotional need once existed in his heart has long-since been brushed away to feed his habit. The only thing he really cares about arrives unexpectedly in his apartment while he’s out: His kid sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). She’s in trouble and needs a place to stay. Brandon is happy in his life and doesn’t need her around to muck things up. The connection between Brandon and Sissy is interesting. We sense a tense distance between brother and sister yet comfortable enough that being naked around each other is nothing unusual. We sense that some measure of psychological damage exists between them but the movie determines to keep it at a distance.

The introduction of Sissy into the plot promises more than the movie is willing to deliver. Brandon doesn’t want her there because she breaks up the pattern of his addiction. He also isn’t too thrilled when she begins engaging in some of the sexual behaviors of which he is guilty himself, such has having sex with his married boss David right there in the apartment (he takes a jog to get away from having to hear it).

I think what director Steve McQueen intends with Shame is to create a film about the breakdown of a sex addict, whose addictive patterns are thrown into chaos. The problem is that both Brandon and Sissy stay at a distance from us. McQueen shows us lots of full-frontal nudity – Fassbinder included – that has no intention of titillating, only proving how empty and nihilistic sex addiction is. The problem is that we don’t care about the people involved. Brandon is a bastard from one end to the other. He sees women only in conjunction with what he can do with them once he gets them back to his place. In other words, he’s such a pig that we don’t want to spend five minutes with him.

With Sissy, he turns on the jealous older brother routine, creating a double-standard by forbidding her to have sex with David while he himself can go out and pick up anonymous women at will. There is an uncomfortable scene in which they sit on a couch and he lectures her about her sex life. Something isn’t being said, but the movie never really gives us any kind of indication of what they might be. Have they been incestuous in the past? Sissy certainly isn’t shy about being naked around him. I’m not saying that the film needed to delve into that area of their lives, but give us some kind of indication of why they are so uncomfortable around each other.

What begins as an interesting, but spare portrait of a sex addict grows more and more pretentious and distant as it rolls along. Just when we should be gaining some vested interest in the plight of these characters, the movie keeps them at a distance. There are long quiet scenes, long empty spaces and long tracking shots that go on forever. It might work if those scenes had purpose and meaning but it feels like director Steve McQueen is using the “because it’s there” approach to his shots. So much of his film is left unquestioned and unanswered that you feel that McQueen didn’t have all of his ideas laid out when he started shooting. As for his characters, we never really get to understand who the they are, so it is difficult to care about them. There are long passages in the film in which almost nothing happens and I think that kills the film’s forward momentum. There are some things to admire about Shame, but I found it to be a little soulless. The drama is there but the characters are not anyone we can care about.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2011) View IMDB Filed in: Drama