"Shame" is an exercise in sadness so deep and aching that it's like plunging ever downward into a midnight-black lake and never touching the bottom. This explicit account of a handsome Manhattan sex addict -- played with a hollow, numbing ferocity by Michael Fassbender -- features graphic nudity and a flurry of sexual images, but don't go expecting a prurient experience. Its eroticism is stark and clinical.
Yet despite the wrenching world created on screen, Steve McQueen's unapologetic foray into the dark crevasses of human nature is a terrific movie. By that term I don't mean to suggest that it is uplifting, enjoyable or redemptive, all conditions that many people would expect from a superlative cinematic experience. What it manages to be, however, is almost staggeringly human, and unapologetically so.
Consider two scenes that come close together.
In the first, Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender), who to all appearances lives a charmed urban life -- high-powered and high-paying job, swanky apartment, nights of excess in expensive restaurants and bars -- is on a first date at a restaurant with a co-worker, Marianne (a strong Nicole Beharie), an intelligent and level-headed woman.
She asks Brandon about his longest relationship, and he replies, with a tightening in his throat, four months. It's definitely a warning sign to Marianne, who grills him -- as much as you can grill someone on a first date -- on his inability to commit. But she doesn't realize the extent of it.
That's because while Brandon is obsessed with sex, he has created a chasm so wide between the act itself and any sort of emotional connection that it's impossible to cross. Whether it's pornography, prostitutes, one-night stands, anonymous encounters or even just a dash to the men's room in the middle of a work day for a moment of self-pleasure, Brandon has sealed himself off from the rest of humanity.
So how does McQueen depict this dinner, which happens to be the only moment in the film when Brandon makes an attempt at an emotional connection? With a static, unblinking camera that drinks in every agonizing moment of awkwardness.
There are no insightful close-up shots, no liquid camera moves to convey a sense of bouncy forward motion. There are no possibilities. Just the painful conversation in real time. When the waiter, who seems to feed in a negative way off the awkwardness of the table, interrupts to pour the wine, you're almost grateful, even though he comes across as stilted as the two diners.
The second scene comes a little later in a "love scene" between Brandon and Marianne. He's secured a swanky hotel room with a great view. All's ready for a romantic good time, right? But McQueen, mirroring the restaurant scene, leads the audience into the scene with the same detached camera, dutifully following each phase of foreplay, but without betraying even a hint of emotional connection. It's among the least "sexy" depictions of lovemaking possible.
So what to make of "Shame"? The acting is superb. The first shot -- a bird's-eye view of Fassbender in bed, his naked body wrapped in tousled blue sheets, staring vacantly at the ceiling -- suggests an emptiness within, a vacancy so blatant, that you almost wonder if his character's body is embalmed. Fassbender inhabits the role in a way that sticks with you far beyond the confines of the film.
Carey Mulligan, as his troubled sister, offers her own plaintive characterization, carrying with her a whiff of tragedy. And James Badge Dale, as Brandon's horny boss, makes a mark as well.
The result: a memorably caustic film steeped in melancholy. It's humanity at a low point, but when it comes to the art of film, "Shame" is an experience that resonates at the highest level.
"Shame," rated NC-17 for explicit sexual content. Stars Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan and James Badge Dale. Directed by Steve McQueen. Running time: 99 minutes. Grade: A
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