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Spare and minimalist in word and exposition, director Steve McQueenís latest film, Shame, is oddly rich in its immersion into the life of a man suffering from an addiction.

Brandon lives the good life.  Heís a handsome thirty-something with a well-paying job and a snazzy flat in Manhattan.  A man so attractive that women on subways put aside their usual, eye-contact-avoiding caution and openly flirt as he sits across from them. Why would a guy with so much going for him ever need to employ a prostitute?  Why would he fill every computer he has access to with live sex chats and websites with perversions too freaky to name?  Why would he crave random, unsafe hookups with anything bearing two legs and an orifice?  Why are his hands so callused when he works at a keyboard all day?  Brandonís got a problem: He has an insatiable need to have sex all the time, anywhere.  The issue for Brandon is that no amount of carnal excess is ever enough.  His entire world is centered around his crotch and it leads him to some pretty dark places, both literally and figuratively, and to engage in some very dangerous behaviour. 

Does the unexpected arrival of Brandonís flitty little sister, come to stay after yet another bad break-up modify his actions?  Only when Brandon canít get into his bedroom because Sissyís boinking his married pal in it.  Her very presence puts everything on edge in a way that Brandonís indulgences never do.  Sissyís attempts at establishing closeness and a normal family relationship with him even after catching sight of some of her brotherís kink only makes him retreat and eventually attack her.  Sex Brandon can handle, actual human emotion, not so much.  The pretty co-worker he finally works up the nerve to ask out attempts to break through the superficial interactions that Brandon is used to and itís all too much for him.  The man for whom sex is as common as a handshake cannot tolerate real intimacy for the life of him.

Good stuff, this.  The prevailing chatter about this film will refer to the graphic and frequent nudity by star Michael Fassbender as we view a range of Brandonís experiences and much will be said about how courageous he is for taking such a role.  On many levels, it is a terrifically brave performance, not only due to how much time he spends naked, but where his mouth ends up on various other actors that canít possibly be CGI.  All physical interactions aside, the way Fassbender turns himself inside out emotionally as Brandonís life of debauchery begins to strain and slowly shatter is powerful and painful to watch.  Where else has sexual intercourse been shown as an act of self-destruction as capably as it is here?  Brandonís itch canít be scratched and all the animal rutting in the world canít satisfy it.  At some point reality must set in to make Brandon face all the psychic and emotional damage his uncontrollable urge is doing.  Shame is a harrowing film about addiction of a sort we never have seen well-portrayed - if at all - onscreen.  

Many will contend with the lack of a clear definition as to the reason why Brandon is the way he is; a point director/co-writer McQueen purposely leaves blank, but drops enough clues to put two-and-two together and come up with some serious dysfunction.  I donít believe the Ďwhyí is terribly important.  One can know all the background behind an alcoholic or a cocaine addict being the way they are, but in the end, all that matters is that they are dealing with an issue that wonít be resolved until the problem is admitted.  It is at that stage where we meet Brandon; the arrival of his sister drops an unexpected mirror in front of him he isnít ready to face.  When he begins his crash, itís like having the stitches ripped off a wound.  The guy with everything going for him is as lost and tormented as any crackhead on the street.  The difference being Brandonís become conscious enough to know when heís hit bottom, but maybe his awareness isnít happening fast enough. 

Carey Mulligan does some of her best work as the frivolous neíer-do-well little sis, who only wants a real family bond with her brother, but canít make the connection between Brandonís insistence on keeping her at armís length and her own inability to not screw up.  Both siblings have talent; Brandonís very successful at his job and Sissy lands a singing gig in posh restaurant, but their failings, particularly when the pair is in close contact, hang over each of them like dark clouds ready to throw their good fortune into turmoil at any moment.  McQueenís film noir renderings of Manhattan look as if captured from a seedier time with oily, empty streets, the starkness of the ugly glass and chrome architecture of newer buildings and the late night haze of debauchery in back alley sex clubs.  The utter aloneness of the surroundings only emphasises Brandonís problems because he, like many addicts, left entirely to their own devices, doesnít see anything that calms or takes the pain away even for a moment as bad.

Much will be made of Shameís graphic sexuality and I fear that many will choose to judge or avoid the film entirely based on their personal reaction to that aspect.  Letís face it; a fully naked male onscreen is still far from being accepted, whereas female nudity is practically expected in a similar medium.  With any luck, people will get past their squeamishness or the titillation factor and see this movie for the stunning portrait of addiction and concurrent damage that it is.  Michael Fassbender turns in an extraordinary performance that deserves an Oscar, as does McQueenís adept, insightful direction; neither should be missed.

Provocative, bold, intelligent and emotionally wrenching, Shame is one of the best films of the year.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

December 2nd, 2011



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