Tuesday, December 20, 2011


              Let Me Take You Down, 'Cause I'm Going To
                            Review by Ken Burke
The NC-17 rating is not about eroticism but how longing for humanity beyond raw intercourse is overwhelming a sex addict, desperate for more substance in his life.
             In Shame Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) lives in a high-rise Manhattan apartment with a beautiful view of the city.  The only thing he can’t see clearly is himself, or at least any part of himself that’s not consumed with sexual addiction.  Steve McQueen directs Fassbender through a horrendous journey to find something salvageable in himself and the sordid lifestyle which is consuming him, his job, and any hope he has of finding humane relationships with real love interests or even with his equally troubled sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan).  When we first see Brandon the camera is placed directly over him in bed where he’s half nude and completely still as if he has no animating force in his life.  When he finally rises to meet another day (bad pun, I agree, but this film is so—successfully—devoid of hope that a little cheap humor may be necessary once in awhile to keep even a review of it from going into life support mode), he’s naked and quickly on the move, seemingly the only source of hue and action in his stark, sterile surroundings.

            We get a wonderful introduction to Brandon’s world in the first few minutes of the film as we see him in quiet morning moments in his apartment, displaying his phallic centerpiece and urinating (among the many elements that led to the rarely-used NC-17 rating), juxtaposed with his daily ride on the similarly monochrome but now crowded subway where human interaction is also restrained despite the close quarters of the daily riders.  But into this packed environment of reserve and avoidance Brandon brings some action again, subtle visual action intended to generate action of another kind as he makes eye contact with an attractive woman and we make contact with her as well through subjective shots from Brandon’s point of view of her boots and uncovered thighs, then the complication that comes from the close-up of her wedding ring.  (This is a perfect example of what Laura Mulvey was referring to about the fetishization of women in mainstream films in her classic feminist film theory article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”; I encourage you to look it up, then you can explore the later critiques and extensions if you wish but you need to understand how this is the cultural confirmation of woman as desirable object but still threatening to the man who desires her so she’s figuratively chopped up into controllable, bite-sized chunks so that the man—and the vicarious audience—can more easily assure himself of his controlling domination.)  The smoldering glances and tensions between the two are resolved when she moves quickly away through the door at her stop, but this won’t be the last that we (and Brandon’s neighbors) will see of her.  Behind them a subway poster asks, “How Is This Possible?,” but in Brandon’s world anything seems possible as long as it involves a perverse stimulation of some kind.

            The somber mood and stark environment continue at Brandon’s office, an unspecified corporate location where we find establishing shots that carry cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s same confusing but attractive images that we’ll see in subway stations, doubled or distorted reflective surfaces that seem to hurl elements of the locales against each other just as Brandon and his secretive obsessions are hurled against the public perception of him as cool, confident, and able to rise to any occasion (same bad pun; don’t worry, I have a self-imposed limit, something that completely eludes Brandon’s self-gratification needs).  He does respond successfully if the occasion is provoking enough, although sometimes the stimulus just has to be an empty restroom stall where we get another great overhead shot of Brandon in midday masturbation mode just to keep his juices flowing for the critical client meeting to come later in the day.  (OK, pun limit reached and we’re not even a half hour into the film, but Brandon likewise isn’t even halfway into his day and there’s still considerable activity to come later, as his body and beleaguered brain continue to drive him to conquests both of the business and personal varieties.)  A marvelous quality of the semiotics of cinema is revealed in these restroom breaks, with another occasion needing only the shot of him entering the door for us to know the full situation not necessary to be shown on screen again—which also semiotically clarifies why this isn’t a “hard” NC-17 (yeah, I can’t stop myself; in my own way I’m just as damaged as Brandon) with explicit sexual climaxes, just a lot of skin and multiple angles of humping with multiple partners.

            If “grease” is the word for 1950s musical fantasies with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John slumming as sanitized horny teenagers, then “shame” is an appropriate word for Brandon’s adult sexual obsessions—and he clearly does feel it in various ways throughout this compelling, uncomfortable, and relentless film—but most everyone around him has reason for feeling their own version of shame as well, starting with his sleazy boss David Fisher (James Badge Dale) whose wife and child are all but forgotten when he constantly goads Brandon into scouring nightclubs with him to find fresh female meat (grotesque statement, yes, but David seems to have no higher aspirations except when necessary to keep things running smoothly at his equally cutthroat office).  The fact that he’s overblown and absurd as a hustler is put into easy comparison with Brandon who manages to snag the very prey that David stalks in a bar after work and then takes her against an urban wall with no intention of anything but raw passion on both their (body) parts.  Shame indeed for all concerned.  It shouldn’t necessarily be shame being felt by the various hookers and on-line sex women of Brandon’s life because they’ve chosen a profession (illicit but much in demand) that likely supports them well, but they’re certainly not publicly acceptable in Brandon’s seemingly tasteful, sophisticated milieu so they carry at least the imposed shame of conventional society if their identities were disclosed.  Even the initially cautious woman on the subway has reason for her own dose of shame later on in the film when she finally beds Brandon, or rather displays herself for all to see, in adulterous broad daylight as she splays herself on the floor-to-ceiling window of his bedroom so he can take a rear entry, entertaining the neighbors with his afternoon delight if they even bother to look up from their boring sidewalk lives. 

Yet, the feeling of shame, of remorse over lapses of morality, ethics, or just human decency is not only in the eyes of the audience beholders of this constant bodily fluid fest, it is also potentially in the eyes of the characters where most of them seem to have no qualms whatsoever about their embrace of the lurid.  David especially is disingenuous when he somehow finds that Brandon’s office computer is “filthy” with porno and insists that it needs to be cleaned, yet he also reinforces how blind he is to his own lifestyle and that of his successful stud friend when he assumes that the offending material must have been downloaded by an intern rather than Brandon.  In this entire cesspool of instant gratification the only one who seems at all bothered by his corruptive cravings is Brandon, who finally tries to clean up his act as a response to multiple challenges to his lifestyle when Sissy spontaneously imposes herself on his abode and entertainments.  Unlike her charming but guarded brother, she’s an obvious emotional mess, on the run from a failed relationship and everything else in her life so she seeks a respite with Brandon which sends them both quickly off the rails. Again, an obvious comment is offered on the film’s action by a record (not a CD, Brandon’s too trendy for that) playing “I Want Your Love” early in her unannounced invasion of Brandon’s refuge, but, despite some vague hints about past incest or maybe a sense that she wants what she assumes is Brandon’s ability to make love easily without getting emotionally hooked, what she really needs is brotherly love, understanding of and help with her traumatic situation.  Unfortunately, that will be slow to come, hard to come by (damn, this film makes tacky puns difficult to avoid) a problem for both of them because this is a type of love that Brandon is ill-equipped to share.  
With a further dose of misfortunate for Sissy, David is there to share the casual sex that he’s too clumsy to find with more reserved women and Sissy is too needy to offer any resistance so soon they’re providing a nighttime show in Brandon’s bedroom window which must be ever easier for the neighbors to gaze on if they care to.  As a measure of David’s shallowness he seems aroused by Sissy’s agonizingly slow rendition of “New York, New York” at a nightclub where she’s performing (so her life’s not a complete mess, although I’d say her singing is) while Brandon is quietly saddened by it, possibly because the melancholy feel of this normally upbeat number reflects the reality that his sister doesn’t seem capable of making here or anywhere else, that she’s not fit to be a part of “it,” whatever it might be, especially a sane, secure relationship which is clearly not in the cards with David.  Sissy’s stylings of this song are part of the ambiguous aspects of this haunting film:  What has messed up the Sullivan siblings so much that they’re each so damaged in their present conditions? What chance does either of them have to transcend their deep flaws and find healthier, more productive lives?  But ambiguity is all we get here, even to the point of it being an audience decision if Sissy’s singing is just off-key and dreadful or touchingly soulful, unlike the similar but clearly evocative slow Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in David Lynch’s 2001 Mulholland Drive where Naomi Watts and Laura Harring are involved in a surreal mystery that’s a twisted dream compared to the blunt realities of Shame but in his scene Lynch purposefully makes you aware of the mood his characters are conveying.  McQueen doesn’t want to be that direct with emotions in this film, only with the physical substitutions for emotion, so he sets you up with situations that beg to be resolved but instead require you to ruminate on your own rather than find yourself clarified, as effective character-driven realism films should set out to do.
          The intrusion of first Sissy, then Sissy and David into Brandon’s former sanctuary brings about a furious attempt at a lifestyle change for him.  First, when his boss and sister are taking over his bedroom on the night of their first meeting he finds himself confined to the uncomfortable left-screen corner where he starts undressing, seemingly to join them or to pleasure himself in response to their spontaneous passion.  Instead he goes on a long nighttime jog in the city streets, apparently trying to sublimate his erotic urges through physical exhaustion (reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Issac hoofing it through NYC streets in a similar flattened space parallel to the screen, isolating the character from his surroundings, at the end of 1979’s Manhattan, but Brandon’s run is longer, more intense, more of a personal attack on his own body, as his circumstances are more dramatically desperate).  Later, his sister tries to crawl in bed with him, probably just for comfort but he almost violently throws her out of the room, either disgusted by what she might be suggesting or disgusted at himself that he might be willing.  Then, she catches him one day in the process of self-satisfaction while also linked up in a live cybersex “chat.”  All of this exposure of his former unabridged proclivities and activities leads him to rid the apartment of erotic magazines and who knows what else it takes to fill the roughly dozen large garbage bags that he hauls to the curb.  He even tries to hook up in a more personal way than usual with attractive co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie)—see the second video clip noted below—but when he brings her home for an afternoon tryst he suddenly, frustratingly finds himself unable to perform (although that humiliation is erased by way of the successful conquest of the subway wife soon after).  In the conversation at the end of their first date (just after what’s shown in the clip) Brandon states that he prefers encounters to commitments; Marianne counters with “Why are we here if we don’t matter for each other?”  Brandon’s obviously been struggling with that question for much of his life.

Things turn nasty, in a constrained and tense conversation between brother and sister that leads both of them to a night of self-destruction, although we don’t learn about Sissy’s suicide attempt until after a long intercut sequence of Brandon’s unwarranted seduction of an occupied woman at a bar, the beating her boyfriend gives Brandon in response to his intrusive (but apparently not completely undesired) assault on her, Brandon’s wild abandon in a gay bar and then in a ménage à trios with women who seem to be pros, known to him through previous encounters.  Once again a subway poster comments to us about the unruly events on screen with the slogan “Improving. Non-Stop.”  Little improvement comes for either Sullivan, but Sissy is apparently non-stop in her responses to the troubles she causes and that find her, as the many cuts on her arms show about previous suicide attempts.  It all gets even more ambiguous at the end as Brandon, sorrowfully wallowing in her blood,  seemingly gets her to the hospital in time to forestall death once again; he breaks down in agony possibly at the level of personal hopelessness that he and his sister have mysteriously come to (“We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place”—which seems to imply more than just their New Jersey upbringing) or possibly because she does die after all (likely not, but much is unclear at the film’s finale); then in Shame's finale he’s once again making eye contact with a married woman on the subway but with no clear resolution as to whether he’s choosing to back off from temptation or incapable of rising above his obsessions.

Michael Fassbender presents Brandon as a searing study in pleasure turned to pain as the shots of his face show in the wrestling around with the two women close to the end of the film; if this is the ecstasy of orgasm it’d be a great argument for abstinence.  He’s a sure lock on a Best Actor Oscar nomination and well-deserved.  Carey Mulligan as Sissy brings laudable intensity and pain to her role as well and might find herself joining other surer bets such as Octavia Spencer (as Minnie Jackson in Tate Taylor’s The Help) in the Supporting Actress category.  What’s much less certain for either of the Sullivans in Shame (assuming that Sissy did survive, which I’ll admit she probably did or Brandon would be really heartless if all we see afterwards is him scoping out possibilities on the subway again) is what they’re capable of in moving above and beyond the slime that has held them down for so long in their young lives.  We’re not meant to know the answer to that nor would the film benefit from clearing up these ambiguities just to give relief to its audience.  What we’re really being confronted with here is the more difficult question, “What is the shame in our lives and what are we prepared to do about it?”  We’re left without knowing what path Brandon will take but ours needs to be resolved, possibly with a powerful film such as this as inspiration for better action than we’ve been allowed to see about the troubled Sullivans and the empty supporting players in their lives.

            If you’re interested in exploring this film further here are some recommended links:

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