What kind of warped world do we live in where we can see movies like The Human Centipede easily, but films that portray graphic nudity and raw, realistic sex scenes get slapped with NC-17 ratings? Having known little about Shame outside all the praise, I can’t say that I wasn’t intrigued by the prospect of it being one of the first NC-17 films to be seriously packing theaters and getting major awards buzz since The Last Tango In Paris in 1972. I mean, I can’t even remember the last time I’ve seen a movie with an NC-17 rating in a major theater chain. Most either fight it (like last year’s Blue Valentine), or grudgingly re-edit until it’s given an R-rating.
However this isn’t a film that’s been cursed by the movie god’s with the dreaded rating…but one that views that rating as, in the words of Fox Searchlight co-president Steve Gilula, “a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter”. And that’s exactly how it’s treated in Steve McQueen’s new festival darling Shame. When the film begins, one of the first things we see is a full-frontal nude shot of star Michael Fassbender. His character, Brandon, is a sex addict. He goes to the bathroom to masturbate during work, has endless amounts of porn on his computers, regularly hires hookers, and trolls bars looking for one-night stands. Then Brandon’s life is interrupted when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) unexpectedly arrives to stay with him for an indefinite amount of time, sending him into a dangerous downward spiral.
Filled with shots that linger far longer than is customary (especially during a scene where Sissy sings a slow version of “New York, New York”), this is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. Because of the way it’s shot, Shame is slow paced – not boring, by any means – by certainly not action-packed. I’ve heard some complain that not enough actually happenes, but to me this isn’t a criticism at all. Shame is purely about Brandon and Sissy. Fassbender, who has just recently taken the film world by storm, gives the best male performance of the year. When he’s staring down a potential hook-up on the subway, his face morphs from interested and handsome, to brazen and maybe even a little frightening. There is very little warmth to his character; he pushes his sister away and can’t deal with emotional intimacy. But when we finally see him break down, it feels far more revealing than any of the number of crotch shots before it. Sissy is in some ways Brandon’s total opposite; she’s needy, emotional and extroverted. But there’s one thing that irrevocably links them: the inner pain they both share. There’s something about Mulligan’s face that communicates sadness so beautifully and clearly, an attribute that makes her the perfect person to play a character as lost and vulnerable as Sissy.
The bravest thing about Shame is that it feels no need to give us answers. Of course it’s irritating, and of course we want to know the details behind Brandon and Sissy’s painful past. But McQueen doesn’t bother much with exposition and lets us find things out whenever it would naturally come up, giving this character study far more realism than it would have otherwise. If you’re prepared to put your thinking cap on, there’s a lot to mull over. When Brandon first sees his sister, he accidentally walks in on her in the shower, where she makes no attempt to cover herself up as they talk. A similar thing happens later on in the film where Brandon gets on top of Sissy during a yelling match with his towel barely still clinging to him. To the audience it’s clear: this is definitely not a normal brother/sister relationship. Was there some sort of forced incest between the two? Abusive parents? Like I said, no concrete answers. Perhaps the biggest indicator of how effective Shame really is: I’ve spent the entire day trying to come up with answers to questions that can never really be answered in the first place.
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