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PostPosted: Thu Oct 06, 2011 5:45 pm 
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CAREY MULLIGAN AND MICHAEL FASSBENDER IN SHAME

A cold wall of sex in Manhattan

Steve McQueen is the Turner Prize-winning British artist whose stunning depiction of the imprisonment and death of Bobby Sands in Hunger won the first-time filmmaker Caméra d'Or award at Cannes in 2008. Hunger starred Michael Fassbender in a physically wrenching performance that put him on the international map as a film actor. Fassbender and McQueen have teamed up a second time for an equally extreme but far different theme in Shame, a film about a handsome but very cold New York corporate employee who is a raging sex addict. Along with Fassbender, whose character is called Brandon, Carey Mulligan ups the acting level further in an excellent performance as Sissy, Brandon's garrulous and needy sister, a cafe singer, who temporarily moves in with him. Nicole Beharie is fine as Marianne, a coworker who tries to have an affair with the intimacy-averse Brandon, and James Badge Dale is good as David, Brandon's fast-talking boss. This shows that for Fassbender, who since Hunger has been increasingly in demand and delivered some brilliant performances for other directors, particularly Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds and Andrea Arnold in Fish Tank, demonstrates that McQueen may still be the Scorsese to his DeNiro. This is a collaboration that produces outstanding work. But this being a glass-and-steel study of alienation and lack of affect, it doesn't provide the kind of catharsis Hunger did, nor does its style, though elegant, have the rigor and intensity McQueen achieved in his remarkable first feature.

The emotional numbness of the addict and the sense of desperation are evident from the opening sequence, where Brandon prepares for work, ignoring desperate phone calls (they later turn out to have been from Sissy), masturbating hastily in the shower, walking around in a display of casual frontal nudity that shows the necessary equipment is in good order but the face on the man is wary and strained. Again in contrast to Hunger, which shows a precise progression, Brandon's life of wanks, online porno, quickies with pickups and visits from prostitutes without meaningful communication or friendship, produces a sense of narrative as well as emotional chaos. The question gradually arises, How should we care about this man? The answer is that we slowly begin to feel a mixture of pity and disgust, but the caring comes in with the surprise appearance of Carey Mulligan, nude, in Brandon's bath. No information about the siblings, but he says (logically, since it's true of the actor) that he was born in Ireland but they grew up in New Jersey. It's obvious they share some kind of painful family background, and that they are all each other has. Brandon cannot acknowledge need; Sissy can do nothing else. "We're not bad people," Sissy tells her brother. "We just come from a bad place." Sissy is a lost soul, but her despairing warmth saves the film from being as frozen as the deepest bolgia of Dante's Hell.

There are several memorable sequences. In one, Sissy performs the slowest ever version of "New York, New York" in a stylish cafe watched by David and Brandon. Brandon can't seem to muster even mild enthusiasm for Sissy's performance, and perhaps to compensate, she has sex with David later in her brother's apartment, where she's now staying. Further along, Brandon's date with Marianne begins with awkwardness and a silly waiter in a restaurant and ends without a kiss or a hug. The next day Brandon hits on Marianne heavily at work and they end up in a showy room at the Standard Hotel at the High Line but the fact that she really cares for him makes him impotent. He asks her to leave and calls in a prostitute whom he showily screws up against the big plate glass window. Finally, Brandon goes into a downward spiral into the wild side that includes a gay rough trade bar and a seedy dive where his obscene come-on to a woman in front of her husband gets him beaten up. Meanwhile once again he is ignoring Sissy's increasingly desperate calls, with a dire result that somehow may be positive.

At the New York Film Festival Q&A McQueen and Fassbender showed a camaraderie that was quite the opposite of the film's chilly anomie. McQueen's answers showed his purpose was indeed to make a movie about sex addiction, and Shame was set in New York because true-life informants about the subject were available there and unwilling to talk in London. The director alluded to Days of Wine and Roses but here the addict never acknowledges his problem or seems aware of his downward spiral -- except in the gesture of throwing out his porn collection. The film seems to adopt a detached, aestheticized, almost glamorizing view of addiction, though this may not have been at all intended. New York becomes a hell of sterility and coldness that the two talented collaborators may not have understood as well as London -- a place a little too like Steven Soderbergh's affectless call girl's surroundings in his chilly digital Girlfriend Experience, though this is clearly a richer and, despite the protagonist's isolation, a warmer film. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker, who worked on Hunger too, continue their style of powerful long takes, but the familiarly cold Manhattan setting and dislocated sensibility make this more like other films than McQueen's distinctive debut. A hero's struggle for national liberation must inevitably engage more than the conundrum of a dysfunctional modern urban man's inaccessibility even to himself. I would rather that Bach's keyboard music (even the immortal Glenn Gould recordings) were not elicited as a theme. Bach has not been so debased since Silence of the Lambs.

Shame debuted at Venice and was shown also at Toronto; and New York, where it was screened for this review. Fox Searchlight bought the film for US release, planned for December 2, 2011. The French release is to be December 7; UK, January 13, 2012. In the US it has received an NC-17 rating.

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