By Bret Dorman
SEX! PENIS! BOOBIES!
Yes, Shame is NC-17 and meant to be seen by mature audiences? But what is mature? When I bought my ticket they didn’t even check my ID! To be fair I was sporting a 7+ week old beard, so even if I was 12 obviously I was mature enough to grow an awesome beard and therefore obviously mature enough to handle some sex scenes. But I am not 12 or 17, I am 25. I am sometimes mature and able to say and do things that are socially appropriate and acceptable. I also am sometimes immature and make farting noises with my mouth at work or tell people they have something on their shirt then flick their nose when they look down! Haha, suckers…
The Story: Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is good at two things: His job and having sex. His sister, Sissy (Carrey Muligan) is good at one thing: Getting under Brandon’s skin. There’s lots of sex. Also, Brandon likes sex!
As you can tell from ‘The Story’ this movie has a good amount of sex in it. I have two things to say about that. I think Shame is ‘about’ sex as much as Requim for a Dream is ‘about’ drugs. I’ll talk a little more about this later, but it seems a lot of people are latching on to the ‘sex’ thing and ONLY the ‘sex’ thing. Secondly, I think the only shot of female nudity is Carey Mulligan’s breasts. There are a couple shots of full frontal male nudity. This is fascinating to people! I can only remember 3 penis shots, which weren’t used in a sexual context (thus making people confused as to why they were in the movie… either that or disappointed…) and rest of the sex scenes show no penetration or are particularly graphic (except the last one, but still even by today’s standards it’s not that far off from things we normally get in an R movie). This similar penis fascination phenomenon also occurred in Watchmen, where Dr. Manhattan was just walking around nude a couple of times. People exaggerated you see BLUE penis (oh my!) for HOURS upon HOURS when in actuality it couldn’t of added up to more than a minute, maybe two. The point is this movie isn’t complete non-stop graphic sex scene with bunches of dicks flopping around. There’s more to it than that. How much more is maybe dependent on how much you are willing to invest in the movie.
I like movies that have self-sacrifice (Sin City has a couple…) or subtle character subconscious decisions coming out via overtly cinematic expressions (Taxi Driver). In Shame, Brandon chooses to put himself in rough or tough situations even though he knows that he can’t handle it. He goes to see his sister, let’s her come home with a ‘guest’, fills his work computer with porn, and goes on a date where he says relationships are meaningless. All of these then lead to awkward situations, ones where he is in the spotlight and not in a very flattering way. When his sister comes home with her guest she goes into his room and you can hear the two drunkenly flirting while obviously undressing and getting ready to have sex. Brandon paces around his living room, tries to calm himself, tries to talk himself down, but can not do it. He is about the explode, about to do something harmful to someone else or himself. But because of who her guest is he can’t do a thing. Instead he huffs and puffs about, letting the tension build until finally he throws on some sweats, his running shoes, puts in his headphones and goes for a late night jog. As he runs through the streets of New York the camera stays with him, in one long continuous tracking shot. Even though he is trying to escape what is going on in his apartment the shot sticks with him, unforgiving. No matter how hard, fast, or long he runs, that memory/thought of what is going on in his own bedroom haunts him, chasing him down, unforgiving.
Speaking of one shot takes, I’ve heard a lot of criticism about Steve McQueen’s use of them. Some say “well they are good, but not as good as the ones in (his previous film) Hunger!” okay, well I haven’t seen Hunger so I can’t draw that comparison. I can say these ones were good without having seen Hunger, so it sounds like I’m in for a treat. The other thing I hear is that they are “unnecessary” bordering “flashy”. It seems that if you do something in a single take, it must have been for a reason. Any shot that lasts over 30 seconds and critics heads tilt like a a curious puppy. Any shot over 2 minutes and they begin searching for the hidden meanings like Stephen Hawking looking for the answers to the universe. ‘Why is this shot so long?! It must be for a reason!’ Using that logic, if every shot has meaning and a purpose, I wonder why people don’t question the constant cuts and over-the-shoulder shot conversations that make up most films. This is normal, so this is good?
If you have a shot like the dinner date in this movie that is one shot it breaks the norm, but here I don’t think it is flashy, it’s not calling attention to itself. It’s simply one way to show a conversation. And given the two actors on screen, their uneasy first date chemistry, and the waiter always interrupting, I think it’s a wonderful shot. Instead of complaining this movie is ‘too flashy’ I’d hope that other movies try some non-conventional ways of letting two people have a conversation. I’m all for it.
There’s an early scene at a bar where his friend is trying to pick up some ladies. While he desperately seeks their attention and affection, Brandon is always cool. Even while everyone else is on the dance floor he locks eyes with one of the girls. There’s a chilling moment where you don’t know if you should be charmed, seduced, or scared. We know what his motivations are, but for the woman on the dance floor looking back, hers could very well just be the same, out for a one night standor possibly something more? Without having a long drawn out conversation where he convinces her to come back with him, Fassbender plays the scene like a vampire, mysterious and mesmerizing. Carey Mulligan on the other hand, has a scene where she is singing a slow, piano bar rendition of New York New York. The close up on her that refuses to cut away (save for one quick reaction shot) highlights her insecurities. As Sissy gets under Brandon’s skin, we see more of their weird, troubled past and how she seeks comfort in him while he tries to push her away. Even though she may be slightly obnoxious at times, she’s just the character we need to see Brandon pushed to his limits and make some dramatic changes in his life.
There’s a very tense scene in which Brandon goes through and gets rid of all of his porn stuff. Wile I found this scene envigorating, injecting some energy into the movie when it needed it, I have to wonder if he has done this before? He seems well off enough that a laptop, some DVDs, and magazines wouldn’t be too hard to replace. And the fact that even though he clearly wants to change he reverts back to his old ways just a couple of scenes later (his inability to make love to his coworker but fucks what I assume was a prostitute). Frustrating? Yes. But how many times have we been in a situation where we make promises of change only to the next day ration our way back to our old behavior. I believe only something dramatic can cause a person to change. I this sense, Sissy’s suicide attempt is what pushes Brandon to realize he doesn’t need to change for himself, but he has to change for those he loves.
The last shot is a little disappointing. Thinking back on it, I can see it makes sense, but it took a lot longer to talk myself into its purpose unlike comparably ambiguous ending of Martha Marcy May Marlene (which if you haven’t seen it’s worth it and it’s no secret while watching the movie that it’s going to have one of those artsy “non-endings”). In Shame we end on a similar shot from the beginning where Brandon stands behind a married woman on the subway. In the last shot though, as she stands up, this time smiling a little more playfully, like maybe this time she is ready, he doesn’t make a move… at least not right away. The movie ends before we see if she gets off and he follows or doesn’t, thus confirming if he changed or not. I think this ending is instead supposed to end on that frustrating note of the temptation to undo the already fragile change we’ve made. After all we’ve seen him try to change before but it doesn’t stick. Now that he’s changed for unselfish reasons however, it’s not like the temptations won’t always be there…
Near the end Brandon goes on a particularly frustration fueled bender of sex and drugs. In this night we see him hit his lowest as he flirts with a girl and refuses to stop bragging about how much into it she was to her boyfriend. After leaving the bar he gets sucker punched. In this moment I think he wanted to get punched, not just so he could externally feel the pain like he felt on the inside, but because he would have a physical reminder of his own actions long after his bender ended, so he would feel that shame for the next week or two instead of just for a moment. Next he goes to a gay club to get head from a random guy. Is he ashamed of being ‘intimate’ with a man? Doesn’t seem so. But the fact that the gay club is located right across from a popular nightclub and that someone, perhaps someone he knows, might see him go in fuels his desire to have sex, but not make love. As he later sleeps with two women we get a very disturbing voice(mail) over from Sissy. While he is selfishly fulfilling his sexual desires she is calling out for help. It’s not until the ride home that he listens and hears the true weight of her words. Now, he is running to her (instead of the long tracking shot before where he was running from her) and the image of her in the bathroom is haunting because of the stark difference of the white of the room and her skin and the red/brown of the blood. As Brandon tries to help, he smears blood on everything he touches. As her blood stains him and his apartment, he doesn’t care, he only wants to save her.
In Conclusion, I wonder if Shame had come out 10, or even 5 years ago, before “sex addict” was really a popular term, one that is now sort of flouted in the media or over-sensationalized, if people would have a bit more respect for this movie or feel more shocked by it? I wonder if McQueen hadn’t of directed Hunger which had everyone eagerly anticipating this movie they would see it as a better film? I wonder if some of the penis shots were cut out that more people would be willing to watch it? As it stands for me, Shame is a great look at why people do stupid things over and over and how the only way we can change is to see the ones we love hurt by our actions. Disturbing? Disgusting? Depressing? Sure… but you won’t be able to take your eyes off Fassbender (and his wee-wee!!!).
Final Grade: A-