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Shame (2011)
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by Peter Sobczynski

4 stars

At a time when practically every physical or psychological quirk imaginable is now classified as a disorder that demands to be taken very seriously, the concept of sexual addiction is still looked upon by many people either as fodder for salacious jokes or as a subject for media outlets to examine in the most superficial manner possible as a way of luring in readers or viewers with the promise of cheap titillation wrapped in the seemingly serious patina of news. On the surface, one can understand why such a thing might be taken less than seriously by many people--how can a person become "addicted" to something that is a biological need that, for reasons of propagation of the species alone, is essentially hard-wired into every living thing (aside from those lazy-ass pandas, of course)?--but the fact is that for some, the need for sexual gratification becomes such a dominant force in their lives that it winds up looming over everything they do even when they are far beyond the point of deriving anything resembling pleasure or happiness from their actions. This type of behavior has rarely been dealt with cinematically--partly because of Hollywood's skittishness in dealing with sexual material in a serious manner and partly because of the inescapable fact that doing so will almost inevitably lead to the commercially disastrous NC-17 rating that potentially limits where it can be seen and how it can be advertised--but the new film "Shame" endeavors to do just that in a way that is serious and straightforward enough to both stifle any possible giggles and more or less earn the NC-17 rating. The only trouble is that it tackles the material in such a serious and straightforward manner that it threatens at times to be too stultifying for its own good--at times, it almost makes the ultra-dramatic likes of "Eyes Wide Shut" seem like a lesser "American Pie" sequel by comparison

On the surface, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) seem like a perfectly decent and straight-laced kind of guy--he is attractive, charming, easy to talk to and has a good enough job to afford himself a nice New York apartment and all the accoutrements needed to suggest that he is a success. However, what few people can see beneath the pleasant and seemingly sterile surface that he has created for himself is that he is addicted to sex and will go to any lengths to satisfy that deep-seated need. When we first see him, he wakes up in the morning and masturbates in the shower in the same dutiful manner that one might brush their teeth or make some coffee. That is a perfectly normal act, of course, but it is one that he repeats numerous times during the day at work in the workplace bathroom, no doubt inspired by the enormous amount of porn that he has stashed away in his office. At night, he either goes out to bars, often in the company of his overeager boss (James Badge), and effortlessly finds someone willing to go for a quick shag, or stays at home and orders in a prostitute in the way that others order in a pizza. For his down time, his apartment is jam-packed with pornographic material that is carefully hidden from view even though he lives by himself. As he goes through these various exertions, it becomes painfully obvious that they are for maintenance only and that he is long past the point of deriving any sort of discernible emotion--either pleasure or shame--from his endless pursuit of gratification.

This clandestine pursuit, aided in no small part by the ease with which he can access the necessary resources with a minimum of effort or potential embarrassment, has clearly been going on for a while and as we can see, some cracks are beginning to emerge in his carefully cultivated world of self and self-pleasure. His work computer is found to be rife with viruses and pornography, which he is more or less able to explain away. He goes out to dinner with a flirtatious co-worker (Nicole Beharie) that goes okay but the possibility of a real relationship with her soon becomes out of the question. The real upheaval in his life comes in the unexpected arrival of Sissy (Carey Mulligan), his younger sister and a person whose wild and uninhibited existence stands in direct counterpart to Brandon's. She knows no boundaries, has no apparent working knowledge of the concepts of privacy or propriety and has a need for her brother that borders on the pathological, apparently the result of some shared childhood trauma that is suggested but never elaborated on. From the first, Brandon wants her to go away but her continued insinuation into all aspects of his life, even going so far as to blithely sleep with his boss, drives him further and further to distraction and his inability to relate to anyone on a simple human level prevents him from realizing that what he perceives to be a massive annoyance may in fact be both a desperate cry for help and the thing that forces him to finally come to terms with who he really is.

Because "Shame" is the rare film to deal with adult sexuality in a thoughtful and serious-minded manner, it is one that deserves to be looked at with a certain kind of consideration. Yes, it is certainly graphic in its depiction of sexual behavior without becoming either salacious or pornographic and in a time where virtually every film seems to be aimed at a teenage mentality, this is one that is presented by co-writer-director Steve McQueen, whose previous film, "Hunger" (which also starred Fassbender) chronicled the prison hunger strike led by jailed IRA leader Bobby Seale, in a decidedly adult and artistic-minded manner. There is a certain fascination in the early going but the trouble is that McQueen handles the material in such a restrained and antiseptic manner--replete with a cool visual style and a preference for long, unblinking takes--without offering any particular insight into Brandon or his behavior that it eventually becomes somewhat stultifying after a while. I appreciate McQueen's efforts to tell this kind of story in this kind of manner but the relentlessly grim and airless tone starts to work against it at a certain point. It is possible to deal with sexuality and aberrant psychology in a serious manner in a film without making it a chore to sit through--the new David Cronenberg film "A Dangerous Method" (which coincidentally co-stars Fassbender as well) deals with just those notions through the eyes of Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung and does so in a manner that is both intelligently made and highly watchable--but McQueen seems so concerned with making sure that he doesn't come up with something that couldn't be considered exploitative or inspire bad laughs (like that "Sleeping Beauty" idiocy) that the life is drained out of the proceedings and when he does shift towards melodrama towards the end, as in a visit out of a gay club straight out of "Cruising," the effect is far more jarring than presumably intended.

If this were all that "Shame" had t offer, I would probably be inclined to chalk it up as noble failure but it also has up its sleeves, so to speak, two truly amazing performances from Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan that wind up virtually carrying the movie. Fassbender, who has been as busy as Jessica Chastain this year with performances as varied as Rochester in "Jane Eyre," Magneto in "X-Men: First Class" and Karl Jung in the aforementioned "A Dangerous Method," is absolutely spellbinding here playing one of the saddest characters in recent memory and doing so without any of the attention-getting histrionics that the role might have inspired in others. Yes, he bares Brandon's body to Keitel-like levels but he also does the far trickier job of baring the character's soul as well and while the role may lack any sense of easy redemption or resolution, he manages to still make us care for Brandon even when there is no overt reason why anyone should do so. At the other end of the spectrum, Mulligan turns in her best work since her breakthrough work "An Education" with a highwire performance that is as exposed and edgy as Fassbender's is insular and restrained. On the one hand, her portrayal of Sissy is so frighteningly clingy and annoying that you can fully understand why Brandon wants nothing to do with her but when she then lets the character's vulnerability shine through, as in an extended bit in which Sissy, a would-be singer, lets loose with a raw and heartbreaking rendition of "New York, New York," the effect is astonishingly touching. Watching her and Fassbender bouncing off of each other may not be easy to watch but at the same time, it is impossible to look away from them, no matter how much you may want to at certain times.

As a whole, "Shame" doesn't quite work because there are points when it is simply a little too arty for its own good and I wasn't as moved by the final scenes as I was clearly intended to be. That said, it is a thoughtful movie about a subject that is rarely treated in a thoughtful manner and it contains the extraordinary performances from Fassbender and Mulligan to boot. Because I think that its strong points are strong enough to overcome most of its missteps, I suppose that I can recommend it, albeit with some reservations, to viewers who are in the mood for a film that takes a serious and adult subject and treats it in an equally serious and adult manner. That said, I would like to suggest that if you are looking for a movie to see this weekend on a first date, you might want to consider selecting something else and when I say "something else," I mean virtually anything else out there that doesn't feature the names "Jack" or "Jill" in the title.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22743&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/01/11 22:25:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 68th Venice International Film Festival For more in the 68th Venice International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Film Festival For more in the 2011 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2011 Austin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2011 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 34th Starz Denver Film Festival For more in the 34th Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/04/15 David Hollingsworth Unflinching depiction of sexual addiction 5 stars
12/29/13 Monday Morning We used to just call it "jacking off too much." It led to carpal tunnel syndrome. 4 stars
11/27/13 Shaun A The crying, anger and sense of family connected despite the uncomfortable subject. 5 stars
10/07/12 mr.mike Agree with PAUL and Sean. 4 stars
7/20/12 Sean Harrison Brilliant film, but not for everyone. 5 stars
5/26/12 danny Great performances, weak film 4 stars
12/20/11 andy Best NCR17 film I ever seen, intense and exciting drama..Lots of nudity 4 stars
12/05/11 Saurs Asinine wankfest thinly disguised as some kind of social "commentary" 2 stars
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  02-Dec-2011 (NC-17)
  DVD: 17-Apr-2012


  DVD: 17-Apr-2012

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