****/**** Image A- Sound A Extras D+
starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Baharie
screenplay by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan
directed by Steve McQueen
by Walter Chaw Brandon is a cipher from beginning to end, and while that's usually a detriment, in Steve McQueen's extraordinary, gruelling Shame, it's key to why the whole thing works. Even better is that Brandon, a widely-presumed sex addict (to my mind, the film works better without a pop diagnosis), is played by Michael Fassbender, he of the matinee-idol looks and piercing green eyes. It's interesting that what he plays best is ambiguity (next up: a robot in Prometheus), an unknowable quality that inspired McQueen's previous installation piece, Hunger, making the lonesome protest of hunger-striker Bobby Sands into a holy mystery, a relic unknowable and his English bull tormentors Romans with spears knowing not what they do. No less ecclesiastical, Shame is a feature-length indulgence and scourging, making it fair to wonder if McQueen's aim isn't to assail each of the Deadly Sins in due course--his own septet on glowing, adjoined celluloid panels. It's a great explanation of the title, and makes me wonder if the next one won't be "Avarice." Anyway, the film only works because Fassbender is beautiful. Ugly guys don't get to be ashamed of sex.
It's a good place to begin the conversation about how Shame would have been more obviously prestigious with, say, Michael Shannon--an actor who plays in the same places as Fassbender, to far different effect--in the lead instead of Fassbender, an actor we spend a lot of time wanting to be or just plain wanting. When Fassbender jogs, of course he jogs--he also has a dietician, a trainer, and the benefit of really good genes. When Brandon's sister Sissy shows up, of course it's Carey Mulligan, and of course she's getting out of the shower. Things are more tragic when they happen to gods among us, see; the world is Brandon and Sissy's oyster, and when even these people end up as excessively, tragically fucked-up as the rest of us, the things the film demands of us are by their nature different from something like Shannon's own Take Shelter. The danger Michael Shannon now faces is that he could become pigeonholed as the guy about to snap, while the danger Michael Fassbender faces is that he could become (Prometheus co-star) Guy Pearce. The problem for Shannon and Fassbender alike is that they're both probably too far gone on their respective career paths already. What that means for Shame, however, is that Fassbender comes through it on the cusp of massive public consciousness: He's still small enough for what is, essentially, Eyes Wide Shut without the crippling weight of the Cruise/Kidman iconography. He doesn't have baggage beyond looking the way he does. He's not yet meta--the very model of a post-modern artifact.
Brandon's computer at work is filthy with pornography, as is his laptop. When his sister accidentally boots it up one night, a naked girl in a chatroom asks if she's Brandon's girlfriend. It's a moment that rings a little like a Luddite, Orwellian nightmare of the kind that inspires some folks I know to put pieces of blackout tape over their laptop's camera. It's also a moment that informs the cold ethos of the rest of the film: washed-out and frigid in its nightclubs, late-night New York streetcorners, and the offices and hotels where Brandon fidgets, uncomfortable in his skin. I don't believe Shame is about the shame an addict has for his addiction, I believe it's about the shame a human being holds for being a human being. It manufactures minor discomfort with the idea that Brandon might lose his job for surfing NSFW sites at work, but his boss (James Badge Dale) doesn't seem to mind and, in fact, it's the boss who gets broken, disturbed Sissy drunk and bangs her in Brandon's apartment. When Sissy sings a trailer-spoiled but still-moving cover of "New York, New York," bringing Brandon to tears, it's a surprise, I think, that people, being the imperfect things they are, can still manage to convey such depths of emotion...and shame. Shame wonders if art is the by-product of that shame--the urge to create a perfect expression of our disappointment in our imperfection.
As the film winds up, through, around, and beneath the ways in which Brandon and Sissy remain completely incapable of escaping their essential lack of civilization (his desire to be repulsive, her desire to be adored), their stories come to a head over the course of a single night as Brandon does his best to be punished and Sissy does her best to punish herself. McQueen tells their sympathetic spirals in journeys internal as well as external: his through a search for bad sex, hers through absence and a voicemail. The equation isn't between heterosexual and homosexual release or "normal" missionary relations and "abnormal" ménages à trois, but rather between urges that are considered to strengthen society and urges perceived to destroy it. Obliquely, Shame speaks to ideas of adultery and monogamy, of the anonymous sex you pay for and the anonymous sex you don't. It casts a pair of burlesque dancers (DeeDee Luxe & Calamity Chang) as Brandon's final partners to lend the picture the authenticity of women whose bodies are no longer entirely theirs, and McQueen frames and shoots a temptress on a subway (Lucy Walters) in a way so adoring and precious that I swear to God I haven't seen a woman as desirable on film since Hitchcock had Grace Kelly emerge by the light of fireworks. By the end, Shame offers no solutions--there are no solutions: Brandon is afflicted with wanting to have sex, his objects of desire are afflicted with wanting to be adored, and when Brandon isn't able to get it up for a beautiful co-worker he might have a future with, it's an insightful film's moment of absolute honesty. Shame is about the lie of us distinguishing ourselves from the animals--the lie at the root of everything that goes wrong in the relationships between people, cultures, religions, creeds. It's a contemporary film about an essential, timeless truth. I'm glad it was Fassbender.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Fox's stateside Blu-ray release of Shame deserves a footnote for including the first Digital Copy of an NC-17 title; what's the word for encouraging portable viewing of this film if not "cheeky"? The picture was shot in Techniscope, a widescreen format that uses half the real estate of a standard 35mm frame. Techniscope gained traction in the '60s and '70s, because 1) it produced a 'scope image without restricting the choice of lenses to those in the anamorphic family, and 2) it saved a production money by theoretically halving the cost of film stock. McQueen, as I understand it, began using Techniscope on Hunger for another reason altogether: because it doubled the length of a roll of film, thus facilitating long, unbroken takes. (I can only assume he didn't want to resort to digital photography, which would've allowed him to shoot to his heart's content.) The problem with Techniscope is that it is effectively 16mm, with all the peccadilloes (increased grain, decreased resolution) that implies, though the post-production tools at the disposal of today's filmmakers make this less of an issue than ever before.
Shame looks a little soft in its 2.35:1, 1080p transfer, but fine detail still manages to impress in close-ups, and excessively grainy the presentation is not. One scene--an ill-fated nooner between Brandon and a co-worker (Nicole Baharie, momentarily stealing Shame out from under Fassbender)--is quite washed-out, but McQueen's formal control is so rigorous I tend to doubt my judgment of what constitutes a flaw here. The sickly cyan cast to the image, though, perhaps simultaneously reflects Brandon's mental state and masks any technical shortcomings. Extremely persuasive from an acoustical standpoint, the attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is dominated by musical selections (mostly classical, some disco) that sound as immersive as they ever have. The non-diegetic use of the LFE channel is a particular highlight of the mix and, contra-genre, will not go easy on your subwoofer.
Extras are amusingly vapid: The studio is selling Shame like the usual schlock, even boasting of the film's Golden Globe nomination on a front-cover sticker; on some level, it feels like performance art. The barrage of EPK-style vignettes begins with "Focus on Michael Fassbender" (3 mins., HD), in which Fassbender--satirically, I hope--describes his character as "average guy, working-class." In "Director Steve McQueen" (3 mins., HD), McQueen fights a losing battle against editors determined to make him a soundbite generator, while "The Story of Shame" (3 mins., HD) prompts Fassbender, McQueen, and Carey Mulligan to summarize Shame and "A Shared Vision" (3 mins., HD) finds Fassbender and McQueen speaking somewhat reductively about their creative partnership to an unseen junketeer. Lastly, "Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with Michael Fassbender" (5 mins., SD) touches on Fassbender's research into the role of Brandon ("I watched a lot of pornography--nah, I'm kidding," he says, in the worst performance of his career) and the process of getting into character. It's nothing special, except in the context of these supplements. HiDef trailers for Shame, The Descendants, and Margaret round out the disc, the latter two cuing up on startup.