NYFF ’11 Review: No “Shame” in This Engrossing Fassbender-McQueen Study of Sex Addiction

Though its expected NC-17 rating has drawn much of the attention to the latest from "Hunger" director Steve McQueen, it's the emotional nakedness of this portrait of a sex...

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 All of our 2011 New York Film Festival coverage is here.

"Brandon, where are you," whispers his sister Sissy, a few gasps past rapid-fire pleas to pick up his phone that hit the ears like bullets. She actually knows where he lives, breaking through to him in the only way she can by literally sneaking into his apartment while he's at work, but the chief concern at the crux of “Shame,” the latest film from "Hunger" director Steve McQueen, is that they both have no idea of where he is.

Floating in a New York that's confined by the glass of his high-rise apartment and similarly austere office by day and in the bowels of dimly lit clubs by night, Brandon listens to Sissy's voicemails in the sliver of morning in between as he makes a circular beeline from his bedroom to his bathroom, the only place he lays himself bare outside of sex. While everything in his life is temporary – the cabs, the housing, the women – the routine has become permanent. This has bred a contempt for Sissy, who's flighty, responsible for nothing and passionate about everything (she exclaims at his eggs, “Sooo good!”), but it's also led to a greater dependency on the only intercourse he's able to have where he feels something.

ShameFassbenderBeharie By now, the promise of Fassbender and Mulligan in their birthday suits have probably raised expectations around "Shame" that the film couldn’t possibly reach entirely, not for an absence of the provocative, but because what’s truly stark here is McQueen’s portrait of sexual addiction. Given the attractiveness of Fassbender, “Shame” could’ve glorified Brandon’s hedonism and McQueen doesn’t ignore his star’s looks or charm – Brandon needn’t say a word as he watches his boss (James Badge Dale) clumsily attempt to pick up women who’ll later come back to pick up him. However, that ease is ultimately crippling to Brandon since it’s not the easy score he’s after. Instead, he gets his kicks from either the quick fix of porn or a challenge of a partner he can’t have for some reason or another, as if he’s built a tolerance for a drug and needs one more powerful. 

The film’s two most riveting sequences involve these white whales for Brandon. A wordless sequence where Brandon spies a woman sitting across from him on a subway who is clearly returning his advances only to reveal a wedding band around her finger before getting lost in the sea of people at the station holds the electricity of a first meeting between lovers drained of its romance. And then there is a comely new co-worker (Nicole Beharie) who also doesn’t hide her interest from him, but after a date in which he’s forced to be personable, Brandon’s blunt dismissal of marriage and relationships in general rubs the recently separated woman the wrong way, making her even more alluring to him.

Fassbender doesn’t play Brandon as a predator or as a lost soul who feels justified in his empty conquests because he can’t find love elsewhere. Though the film hints at a tortured past that he and his sister only allude to in cryptic terms, Brandon is simply numb, blocking out family and friends in the way addicts do and the pain only emerging when their most recent hit wears off. It’s a slightly disjointed part because of the character’s wild mood swings, but Fassbender papers over it with an engrossing performance, always at the edge of exploding while Brandon suppresses his true self. Mulligan matches him note for note as Sissy, fragile where her brother is steely, and although the two don’t share much besides a self-destructive streak, their mutual freefall is shattering. 

However, the fallout is about the only fragments “Shame” leaves in its wake, the film as determined and precise as McQueen’s “Hunger,” yet in some ways even smaller without the backdrop of history to enshrine it. That’s not to mistake it with a greater intimacy, which is purposefully removed from the director’s perspective as it is from Brandon’s, the camera often still and at a distance. But as “Shame” spirals inward to the core of Brandon’s demons, it’s an enveloping experience nearly as unshakable as addiction itself.

"Shame" will be distributed by Fox Searchlight in the U.S. on December 2nd. It will play once more at the New York Film Festival on October 9th.

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