Sunday, April 15, 2012

Shame

By Sati. Sunday, April 15, 2012 , , , , , ,
97/100 (2011, 101 min)
Plot: In New York City, Brandon's carefully cultivated private life -- which allows him to indulge his sexual addiction -- is disrupted when his sister Sissy arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay.
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Abi Morgan (screenplay), Steve McQueen (screenplay)
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan and James Badge Dale

“Life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of "parties" with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter - they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship - but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.”
― Sylvia Plath

When I love the movie I usually review it right away. But with "Shame" which is one of the very few movies I give the highest rating to, I just couldn't. I knew I won't be able to review it properly after one viewing and I knew I needed time to see it again. So now that is out on DVD I could finally gather strength to watch the film again and I'm finally able to properly write about it. Because "Shame" is one of the heaviest and emotionally draining films I've ever seen. For me to cry during a movie I need to feel connected to the character or at least be incredibly moved by the story. With Steve McQueen's films "Hunger" and now "Shame" it's difficult to feel the connection - both Bobby Sands and Brandon aren't the kind of characters you can easily relate to. Yet I couldn't hold back tears during "Hunger" and for the last 20 minutes of "Shame" I basically wept uncontrollably.
As "Hunger" shows the destruction of the body and the prevailing of the soul "Shame" shows the destruction of human soul through succumbing to the most primal instincts. Brandon is a successful guy who lives very routine life - he appears to be polite, well behaved, organized as he walks to his corporate job every day and as he interacts with people in his office. Everything in his house is neat, clean, composed. But Brandon's soul is completely different - he has a destructive sex addiction that he hides very carefully from everyone around him. Sex is the only escape for him - from his routine life and from the pain that he feels, for whatever reason. But it destroys him - whenever somebody says "I think you are disgusting" he immediately thinks it's directed at him. When his computer is taken away he panics, because he knows what kind of filth he has on his hard drive. But the worst is yet to come.
Brandon has a sister - Sissy - who keeps calling him. He never picks up. Finally Sissy comes over and stays in his house. She is completely different from her brother - she is a free spirited musician who appears to fall in love deeply and quickly - she changes the cities she lives in frequently as her partners, although she loves too much and it's her main problem. When she comes to stay over at Brandon's apartment the very first night she is in tears talking to someone on the phone, basically saying that she would do anything to be with him. Brandon clearly suffers seeing his sister unhappy. But there is a reason to why he is trying to build a wall between them, why he doesn't pick up the phone when she is calling and why he doesn't want her to stay with him in his place.
At one point Sissy says 'We are not bad people, we just come from the bad place". What that means, we never find out. There are hints though - Brandon picks up Sissy red and seductive scarf with baseball bat and smells it. When she is kissing his boss in the taxi next to him he looks visibly angry. When they have sex Brandon is furious and gets out of apartment to run. Sissy is more than comfortable with Brandon - she gets to his bed naked to hug him, she doesn't cover herself up when he sees her naked. The sad thing, though, is that whatever happened to them in the past they are all they have. Sissy tells Brandon that if she moved away she wouldn't even hear from him. Although their relationship as messed up as it looks may be better than the way they live their lives at the moment. They both have been through something traumatic enough that it followed them to their adult life. And they have destructive ways of coping with it. Instead of letting Sissy, who understands him, in, Brandon pushes her away.
Although, who knows? Maybe nothing bad happened to them. Maybe the "bad place" Sissy refers to is where all of us come from. With Justine in Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia" there was no reason given to us for why she is behaving the way she does. She suffered from depression, it may also be the case for siblings here. Or they simply have unresolved childhood issues - it is stated in many psychology related articles that a sister is the sexual object for her brother, someone he secretly desires. This may be the case for Brandon who loves her and wants to protect her, but with time he realizes how dangerous for him protecting her may be. Sissy at the same time sees him as her support, someone she could run to for help, being quite immature probably not even realizing half of his problems and hidden desires.
While Sissy loves too much Brandon loves too little. His superficial orgasms are the only escape he finds to whatever has happened to him in the past or whatever it is that bothers him. The sexual acts are perhaps the only moments when he feels something, since he became so anesthetized to life because of the way he is living it. He doesn't make love - he fucks. At one point of the movie, perhaps because his inner sense of shame came outside due to his boss finding out what was on his hard drive and his sister seeing what his activities are Brandon decides to break the habit. He throws away all of his sex toys and porn and decides to go on a date with his coworker Marianne. The date doesn't go too well, Brandon can't really talk about many things - his family is what brings him pain and his life is what brings him shame. McQueen introduces a clumsy waiter in the scene to portray the clumsiness of Brandon's attempt at being "normal".
Though the date wasn't ideal Brandon and Marianne meet again in the hotel room. This is a woman Brandon knows and that would stay in his life - they work in the same office. As Marianne attempts to make love to him, kissing him and gently touching him, Brandon shuts down and is unable to perform, embarrassed and crushed, he asks her to leave. Some said that after that it's unclear why we never see her again. but what else could have happened? With all his emotional baggage Brandon is not at the point to enter a relationship. He tried to jump right into it and it only brought him more shame. So he continues succumbing to his addiction, having more meaningless sex. After things with Sissy deteriorate even more he continues his downward spiral walking around New York city searching for any kind of sexual pleasure, no matter how risky or dangerous it is. It's almost as if he was going through different circles of hell.
The descent ends in a threesome with Brandon and two women, which is the movie's most repulsive sex scene stripped of any connection and intimacy. As Brandon climaxes, there is only suffering, hopelessness and shame painted on his face. Through the years of emotional negligence, inability to connect and succumbing to his addiction Brandon managed to become cold and quite inconsiderate of other people's feelings. His argument with Sissy finally triggers an event that may or may not change Brandon. The movie's opening and ending are tied-in and are extraordinarily effective. Though many claim the film's ending is ambiguous all you need to do is to look deeply into Brandon's eyes and notice his lack of typical reaction to know that things will change. Though is it for the best? If he gives up the one thing that allowed him to escape, however shortly, from his pain, what will be left? Is there even hope for him anymore?
McQueen as with "Hunger" created uncompromising and brutal picture. He masterfully directed the movie - the scenes portraying Brandon's quick and superficial encounters are edited in very quick way, showing the lack of emotion both he and the women he is with put in the act. There is nothing sensual, romantic or alluring about the things they do. It's dirty, ugly and awful. There is something profoundly repulsive about the sex scenes here - sex Brandon has is like a drug, but also like a very primitive act. While I always maintained sex doesn't have to be always associated with love, it should at the very least be associated with passion. Though the scenes are torrid, passion is one of the last words that I'd associate them with. McQueen perfectly shows that what Brandon does comes from anger, pain, all the horrible and destructive emotions that basically strip sex from anything emotional and intimate.
The scenes where Brandon's soul battles to stay alive are shot in much different way - in a very long sequences like the scene where Sissy sings "New York, New York" and Brandon sheds a tear, because he cares about his sister and can't stand seeing her sad and during the same time he is afraid of the fact how much he cares for her. The scenes near the end of the film where he collapses on the street in tears, again because of his sister is also shot in one long take, as is his attempt to make love to Marianne and the run he goes to not to be in his apartment - perhaps another, more literal way for him to escape from what's going on in his life. Those scenes are more static - we follow only one event. The movie's opening and the scenes close to the ending are presented in long sequences, portraying Brandon's hopeless routine and his descent into his addiction.
I am amazed that McQueen managed to create such engaging film with slow pace, relatively little substance on the surface and many symbols, innuendos and details you have to catch. With the brilliant use of cinematography and because of brilliant Fassbender some things don't need to be stated outright, you simply can read them from the expressions on the people's faces and the lingering shots in the film. Perhaps the slow pace and the fact you have to think about so many things that are hinted is exactly why the film is engaging. The ending which mirrors the opening, even though you can see visible change in Brandon's eyes, you can see that he is finally responsible and perhaps the shame will work in his advantage now, preventing him from things that would destroy him, still made me think obsessively - "Don't get up, don't follow her". There is also a lot of focus on the woman's wedding ring in the last scene, as opposed to the opening. Another hint for Brandon's change.
Michael Fassbender's incredible performance is one of the best I've ever seen. In fact it's bizarre to even call it a "performance" - his work here exceeds it. During watching the movie I wasn't thinking about how great Fassbender's work is, that came after the film. While I was watching it I was only thinking about his character - he completely disappeared into Brandon. Certain scenes in this film are just unreal - there is a moment where Brandon seduces a stranger in the bar, telling her what he wants to do to her. He goes as far as to actually slip his hand under her skirt. As she stares at him captivated he proceeds talking, until her boyfriend comes over. And then Brandon, who is so destroyed and broken at this point actually tells the boyfriend he wants to fuck his girlfriend and makes him smell his fingers, which he had inside her few moments prior. Then Brandon laughs, because he doesn't care anymore, none of this has any meaning to him. It's a heartbreaking scene and Fassbender's confidence which borders on insanity here later on broken by the laughter is like an overwhelming, deafening cry for help nobody hears.
Carey Mulligan is brilliant as Sissy, although her character is underwritten comparing to how meticulously Brandon is portrayed. She is delicate, alluring and as her brother - broken. I thought she was a fascinating character, sailing through life but always charming people around her, although being so fragile and disturbed inside. She desperately wants and needs someone to love her and take care of her but she also has a habit of falling for the wrong guys. Her addiction is love and when the love ultimately doesn't work out - self harm. While Brandon is composed to the otsiders' eyes, Sissy is impulsive and emotional. Her emotions are her drug, the one she succumbs to too often, forgetting about reason, responsibility and consequences in the process.
Watching "Shame" as "Hunger" is a voyeuristic experience - we follow the protagonist everywhere, we peek at his most intimate secrets. The camera follows Brandon, to the shower, to the bathroom in his work place, to his silent witness of his shame and weakness. We see what he sees - even his fantasies, as the quick shot of Marianne, sitting naked on the bed, when we only see her arm, shoulder and lips. Brandon is dreaming and we dream with him too. We walk around New York with him, seeing the hidden, mysterious world, filled with shameless sex, at every street corner, in the dark alleys and taxi cabs. All of that is backed with haunting and powerful score from Harry Escott, built around a single theme that gains intensity along with the scenes that we are seeing, gradually.
As I watched "Shame" I was reminded of another cinematic sex addict played by amazing Sam Rockwell in "Choke". At one point of the movie he said "I have sex with strangers because I'm incapable of doing it with someone I actually like. I can't even ask anyone out on a date because if it doesn't end up in a high speed chase, I get bored.". But his character wasn't as far gone as Brandon is - he actually took pleasure from the act, saying that for one fleeting moment it's an escape from his life. When we meet Brandon, there is not much of the escape sensation left, there is only compulsion. His addiction is slowly ruining his life and any benefits he had from sex - whether it was joy, the illusion of closeness or the pivotal escape, are either gone or about to be a distant, fading memory.
"Shame" is a very heavy movie and a great character study. The movie raised a lot of controversy which I'm shocked about - it's a movie about sex addiction and people are being outraged about nudity. Frankly the nudity in this movie is just an element of the film, which was crucial, how else could one tell the story based on such subject. With its moving performances and beautiful execution the story still prevails, showing a haunting tale of a man who in attempt to break free built his own cage he is now locked in. There is very little hope left for him, if any. But the rapid turn of events in the movie's final 10 minutes suggests freedom is still a possibility for him.

33 comments:

  1. Hunger was so incredibly distressing, and heartbreaking that I can't imagine I'll ever understand how Shame could match up until I see it. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant review! The idea of seeing Fassbender cry makes me want to cry :'(

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    1. Hunger was kinda equally heavy in terms of suffering but for some reason the emotional pain here was far more...helpless. Boddy could have given up his hunger strike but Brandon doesn't have much choice.

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  2. So close to a 100/100!
    What put you off giving it that last three points?

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    1. The original script has certain scenes that didn't make it into the movie and I thought it was a shame - we see psychological damage but we never see the lengths of incredible humiliation Brandon let's to be the subject of just to get his "fix", while the scenes in the script portrayed that brilliantly. Also the character of Sissy was quite underwritten.

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  3. Yes, so glad you wrote this review! Wonderful, as always.

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  4. Now that is a review. I'm going to wait for a Criterion DVD release of the film as I think there's more to tell about that film. It's a very dark and entrancing film that I don't think is being made very often. It is an adult film but not in terms of sexuality but in its themes. Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan I think give their best performances of their career and I'm pissed that neither of them got any Oscar nods for the work they did.

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    1. Absolutely, Mulligan did wonders with her character and Fassbender was just amazing. It's really not the kind of movie that Academy likes but hell, it's quite embarassing for them. The way things are Pixar animation has better chances at getting an Oscar than thought-provoking movie for adult movie goers.

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  5. Great review! I haven't seen this and I probably shouldn't have just read all that but I have been wondering for some time why people are loving this movie so much. Now I can understand. Sounds fascinating!

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    1. Thanks! I avoided major spoilers in pictures and plot so I think you can still have some surprises :)

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  6. Brilliant review! You bring up things I had not even considered, Brandon not only as an addict, but also depressed like writer you quote Sylvia Plath.
    I think we empathize with Brandon, because as you write, we peek at his most intimate secrets, and there are cry for help moments (like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver). There are signs Brandon cares about his sister, but she is also very demanding, so that makes it even tougher to cope with. They are both kind of portrayed as victims of their behavior and circumstances. Brandon and Sissy don’t look like brother and sister at all in the film? So maybe they are from a dysfunctional family with different fathers. Just a wild guess ( :

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    1. That's a nice observation, perhaps there is something to it. Maybe they only share one parent, but I'm pretty sure they share at least one since Brandon is so freaked out when things cross the line between them.

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  7. Brilliant, Brilliant Review !! And without a doubt, Shame is worthy of your score.

    Personally, that scene where he takes Marianne was an epitome for me. We know that he likes her, he of course needs all the sex but he is still frightened maybe because as you said, he is incapable of actually loving or maybe because this might lead to something meaningful, something he is not prepared for and he withdraws and in the very next frame, he is in the same room with a hooker and now he is completely himself. Great stuff from McQueen.

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    1. Yes, it was all about connection. It was a great contrast of the two scenes and it was quite heartbreaking how shameless they were - doing it against the window. I'm constantly impressed by McQueen's ideas, can't wait to see what he does next.

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  8. Amazing review! You delve into every element of the film - and highly intelligently. Also, wonderful use of graphics. I watched this film twice at the cinema (I think once was enough because the second trip was a bit too soon), but I appreciated it even more on a repeat viewing. Fassbender's performance topped the ones I saw last year, but I was just as impressed by McQueen's direction - his location of his camera and the way Brandon's 'bender' is edited together out of order accompanied by Escott's amazing score. Can't say I am looking forward to watching it again - but I know I will. Great work!

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    1. Thank you! It took me a long time, I kept remembering things from the movie and I was wondering about all the subtle details, McQueen really achieved something amazing here I think this film is even better than Hunger.

      It's a great movie but it took me a long time to watch it again, it's just so heavy, same with "Hunger".

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  9. Amazing review. And kudos on your persistence. I would've given up long ago.

    This review has made me appreciate the film so much more, though I've already been warming up to it. I think I agree with pretty much everything here. Fassbender's performance is just staggering here.

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    1. Thanks! If I gave up the trapped observations would make my head explode :)

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  10. Wonderful review! I'm still yet to see the film (the rating is a little bit of a problem at this moment), but after seeing Hunger, I have high expectations of it. I do love a good character study, if it is done right.

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    1. Thank you! Yeah the rating is a little to high - NC-17 should be reserved for violence not sex. But in today's world apparantly sex is percieved as something worse than violence, which is really disturbing.

      If you loved Hunger you won't be disappointed with this one!

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  11. Nicely written dissection my friend.

    My favourite scene is still the Restaurant Scene. McQueen is a master at his trade witht he eye of a keen artist. He has many big things ahead of him.

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    1. Thanks! I love his unique style of shooting and the fact he refuses to compromise, which is something more directors should do nowadays.

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  12. Your review might be too in-depth for me since I haven't seen the film yet. I just breezed through it though, so I hope I didn't spoil too much of it.

    I guess you pretty much hated this film then huh. :). Interesting to see another extremely positive review for this one. I'm back and forth on whether or not I'll watch this. It might be too heavy for me. Incredible review though Sati.

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    1. It's a great movie, it's heavy but it ends on what can be interpreted as a positive note. I'd say it's worth watching even if it puts you in a sad mood for a day :)

      Thank you!

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  13. I saw Shame earlier this year and was floored by Fassbender performance and McQueen's directing style- my review was also long and very introspective, you should check it out if you're interested. Those two men, plus Carey Mulligan, an amazing script, fantastic score and just the vibe of it, made it one of my favorite films ever. I really need to see this again soon....and also Drive!

    Sati, this review is perfect! If there were any awards given for blog posts, I would recommend this to them! Great job, you should be proud!

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    1. I'm definetly gonna check your review! Thank you so much, I'm proud for finally finishing it, I didn't think I ever will :)

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  14. What a breathtaking, all-encompassing review of not only my favorite film from 2011, but one of my favorite films of all time. In the words of James Badge Dale's David: "You nailed it. You fuckin' nailed it."

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    1. Thank you! I thought you may like this one :)

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  15. Love your blog! :)
    I loved shame, and even put it in my "Iconic Films" section on my blog. It was hard to be concise with this one, wasn't it! I just couldn't keep it short - too much depth in the film. Excellent review, and well covered :)

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    1. Thank you! :) Glad you love the film too, it's one of my all time favorites.

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  16. This has to be one of the well- written, brilliant reviews I've eve read. I'd agreed with everything you'd said. We need people like you in the Entertainment Industry you would make an excellent film critic.And I'm being serious too. I'm not bring a wise-guy or anything but I think you writing would be greatly appreciated by so many others. I love your style of writing and assertion. We need people like you in the Entertainment Industry. Once again great review. :)

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