By Sarah Sluis
Film Journal contributor Erica Abeel reports from the Toronto Film Festival.
Well, gotta hand it to Fox Searchlight for acquiring Shame, the big sale and hot button film of this year's Toronto. Hot not only because it deals with sex addiction, but also immediately shows its stars Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan full frontal; and then offers enough boobs, masturbation, internet porn, and bobbing and throbbing to delight Larry Flynt. While the language - and director Steve McQueen uses precious little - is even racier. You could say Michael Fassbender's traveled a ways since Mr. Rochester.
But mostly congratulate Fox for landing a spectacularly fine film that showcases a major director in the making. Of all the high profile entries at this year's fest, Shame has arguably racked up the most plaudits.
As for story, there's not much, because story per se is not really the point. Video-artist-turned-filmmaker McQueen brilliantly works the intersection of art, narrative, tone poem, and social critique to explore the life of a man who can't get enough. (Charlie Sheen, David Duchovny anyone?) Sex appears to be the protagonist's sole raison d'etre. A companion piece to McQueen's first film, Hunger, about a man with no freedom, Shame examines a character who's blessed with all the western freedoms and privileges and who uses his body to create his own prison.
Brandon - handsome, successful, thirty-something; living in his sleek but sterile apartment high in New York - never met a babe he wouldn't try to seduce, even in the subway, not exactly known for ambience. Brandon in turn is catnip to women. As a distraction from the monotony of cubicle life, his real trade is juggling quickie romances and one night stands.
The tightly controlled rhythm of his life begins to collapse, though, when his troubled, unruly sister Sissy (Mulligan) crashes in an uninvited visit. The pair share some trauma from their past, which McQueen never spells out. Brandon becomes unhinged when Sissy sleeps with his married, horndog boss (James Badge Dale, superb). (If there were no such thing as infidelity, most films at TIFF would have no subject.)
Meanwhile, Brandon's got a heavy flirtation going with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie), an attractive, intelligent divorcee - and emotionally engaged person, as opposed to his usual paid sex worker. But when Brandon whisks her off for a lunch break in some high-end hotel, the terrors of intimacy make him unable to perform. This fiasco, plus his panic at Sissy's desperate need for connection, propels Brandon into New York's hellish underbelly to escape whatever memories she evokes.
The opening shot - and opening sequence - are a knockout: Brandon sprawled semi-naked on blue sheets diagonally across the screen, staring into space, sorrowful and ominous music on the soundtrack. With his eyes alone, Fassbender captures the shame of the title. Shifting in an out of sequence, McQueen follows Brandon from his early morning ablutions in the apartment, to his commute to work on the subway, the occasion for an eye fuck with a girl he then follows in the station, back to the apartment, Bach on the record player - all of it an unsettling study of compulsion.
Meanwhile, the ringing phone and messages, ignored by Brandon, signal Sissy's desperate need to reach him. In this opening sequence, which flows seamlessly like a piece of music, McQueen brilliantly sets up his whole story. The architectural framing and blue, grey and silver color scheme form an elegant background for his sordid tale.
Sissy, a singer, is a mess, sporting scars on her arms from previous suicide attempts. In a set piece in a club she dispatches a slowed-down "New York, New York" (presumably Mullligan's own voice) which causes Brandon to mysteriously tear up and sets the stage for the boss's seduction. Another layered and witty scene observes Brandon on a first dinner date with his co-worker. Fassbender nails this man's genuine cluelessness about human connection, as Brandon confesses his longest liaison has lasted four months. Meanwhile, a waiter is plying the clearly turned-on couple with long recitations of the evening's specials and the wine list, reappearing at awkward intervals. McQueen goes in for long takes, in one case keeping his camera on Brandon and Sissy from behind while they have a fierce argument in front of a near-mute cartoon on TV.
Film's third act focuses on Brandon's degradation as he goes from threesomes, to seedy joints where he's roughed up by a rival, to sitting on the street, bloodied and head bowed. Throughout this section the soundtrack turns almost operatic, as if to convey a mini twilight of the gods. A Brit, McQueen gives a dark twist to New York; subway platforms are anterooms to purgatory; trains are purveyors of stupefied souls.
McQueen appears to be indicting the corruption of society by the wall-to-wall sex made available by the internet. Yet the character of Brandon also channels a type of hyper-detached urban male, who by perpetually using others to serve his own needs, has become a monster, even to himself. Though he's dressed better and has a good job, Brandon is as lost as those riders in the train. Without Fassbender, though, it's hard to imagine Shame. "Michael is a genius, really," says McQueen. "I want to work with the best actor there is, and I think he is, basically."