Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Lucy Walters
Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen
If I had Michael Fassbender's penis, I would most definitely be feeling no shame.
But I digress. Already.
I did what many would consider to be impossible, including Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert, and found myself watching Shame a second time. It was upon my second viewing of the film, after I'd had a short while to process the experience, that I finally came to terms with the film's mind-blowing impact on my own psyche'.
My first viewing of the film left me feeling oddly detached and even apathetic about the film and its characters despite extraordinary performances from Michael Fassbender, who gives a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination, and Carey Mulligan, who does the same. It was in the middle of my second viewing that it occurred to me that the uncomfortable detachment and apathy was, in fact, because I was so deeply immersed in Fassbender's character, Brandon, a sex addict whose every moment is consumed by the pursuit of sex but for whom the act means quite literally nothing emotionally or even physically. Sex is Brandon's compulsion, his only way of existing in a life stripped of all its joy and of all its purpose. When his sister Sissy (Mulligan) shows up at his apartment needing a place to crash for a few days, it throws his life into complete disarray and further into a downward spiral as her histrionic, emotionally needy existence plays bumper cars with his emotionally claustrophobic lifestyle.
Shame is the kind of film you exit either completely blown away or utterly repulsed but, in most cases, feeling like you couldn't possibly go through the experience again. That's a pity, really, because it could very well have been a factor in the lack of Oscar recognition for the incredibly well done film. While I don't necessarily feel compelled to bash the Academy's nominees for Best Actor, and was pleasantly surprised by Demian Bichir's, it's a travesty that Fassbender is not considered to be among the top five actors in 2011.
Director Steve McQueen wisely strips the film bare, aided by Abi Morgan's barebones script that provides little in the way of backstory for the key players here and little in the way of distracting side stories. Morgan, who also penned this year's almost doc like The Iron Lady, which did snag an Oscar nomination for lead Meryl Streep, has constructed here a remarkably focused and painfully honest look at sexual addiction that would likely turn Fassbender into a household name if not for the film's NC-17 rating largely owing to Fassbender's full frontal nudity.
But, really. There's no possible way this film could have been made without the full frontal nudity, a choice that can sometimes feel manipulative and exploitative but one which feels absolutely essential here. The same is true for Carey Mulligan, a critically acclaimed actress who exposes all here but does so with such stunning vulnerability and almost a lack of presence that it's acting in itself.
Shame also proves that Mulligan is quite the singer, turning a rendition of Kander and Ebb's "New York, New York" into an unforgettable, beautifully paced and realized unfolding revelation of her character. The chemistry between Fassbender and Mulligan is uncomfortably amazing, one emotionally shut down and one completely unable to emotionally shut down. It's impossible to not wonder exactly what unfolded earlier in their lives, but Morgan and McQueen never spill the beans.
While Shame is a two-character tour-de-force, there are other plays who leave a strong impact including James Badge Dale, who plays the boss who has to reveal to Brandon that his work computer has been confiscated due to the discovery of excessive porn usage. Lucy Walters and Nicole Beharie also have exceptional moments.
But, Shame is all about Brandon and Sissy.
D.P. Sean Bobbitt shoots the film simply yet authentically, often lingering on faces, bodies and empty spaces as if drawing a parallel between them all. There have been few films in the past year where the writer, director, cast and cinematographer have seemed to so clearly be on the same page.
Shame is a mesmerizing, unforgettable film yet one that will leave you so emotionally strung out by film's end that you will likely think twice before ever sitting down to watch it again. But, perhaps, it will be much like sex for Brandon...an unavoidable compulsion that keeps calling you back no matter how hard you try.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic