REVIEW: Fassbender, Focused Yet Unselfconscious, Makes Shame Compelling

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Steve McQueen's Shame is perhaps mistitled: It's the story of a man who has sex more often than he probably wants it, though still not as often as he needs it, which is a pretty fine distinction to make. And the word "shame" by itself is too loaded, too inherently judgmental. The idea isn't that this character -- his name is Brandon and he's played, superbly, by Michael Fassbender -- is doing anything he ought to be ashamed of. It's simply that the shame he feels is nearly unbearable. Shame could have gone all wrong with the wrong actor. Luckily, McQueen has the right one in Fassbender, and that makes all the difference.

Shame is formal to the point of austerity: It opens with a nearly still overhead shot that's inherently painterly, a tableau of a male nude -- that would be Fassbender -- semi-obscured by drifts of artfully rumpled blue sheets. McQueen, of course, is a fine artist himself -- that's how he made his name before he became well-known as a filmmaker, with the 2008 Hunger, also starring Fassbender. And there are ways in which Shame is too deliberate, too naked in its specificity. That may account for why some of its detractors consider it moralistic -- again, the movie's title isn't helping it any. I did groan when Brandon is shown having desperate, uncomfortable outdoor sex, and later when, in what is supposedly the ultimate debasement, he allows a man to perform fellatio on him in the dim back room of a gay bar. (Immediately after that, he has to re-establish his "manliness" by having sex with two women at once.)

But I think Shame is ultimately a movie about emotional suffering, and not about what we think of as sex addiction (if such a thing actually exists, and I'm unconvinced). Fassbender's Brandon is a successful and rather uptight New York professional -- you can tell by the way his apartment is furnished with a turntable and some LPs, a bed, a laptop for online porn, and little else -- who suffers from sexually compulsive behavior. Calling him a sex addict is too convenient; what Brandon suffers is more peculiar and more painful. He meets women in bars, and because he's so charming and good-looking, they wouldn't dream of resisting his advances; he initiates potential encounters with luscious strangers he sees on the subway; at work, he leaves his desk for the men's room, where he relieves his urges with joyless efficiency; and when none of the above are an option, he has assignations with prostitutes.

Brandon's passive-aggressive boss, David (James Badge Dale), is also something of a buddy and a hanger-on -- the two troll city bars together, looking to pick up women, though the prattling David strikes out more often than he scores, while Brandon barely needs to arch an eyebrow. Even as David tries to glom onto Brandon's subterranean attractiveness, he also finds not-so-subtle ways to register his disgust with his pal's beyond-healthy sex drive: Early in the movie, Brandon finds that his computer has been whisked away temporarily by the company's tech department. He knows -- and we know -- why.

When a blond pixie of a woman shows up in Brandon's apartment, you assume it's one of his former conquests. It turns out to be his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a sometime jazz singer who's landed in New York for a few gigs, and for whatever reason, Brandon is none too pleased to see her. Sissy is charming, fragile, off-the-charts needy: Not long after she lands in Brandon's apartment, we hear her in the next room pleading with an unseen someone on the phone. "I love you, I love you," she repeats as if it were a compelling mantra, when really it's desperately repellant. Even more significantly, we see how breakable she is when she performs "New York, New York" in a club one evening -- it's mournful and expectant rather than jubilant, as far away from Frank Sinatra's version as Times Square is from the moon. The song and its singer affect Brandon in a way that we can't immediately comprehend, though it clearly opens a gate into the persistent, repetitive pain he's feeling.

The bare story of Shame, when you lay it out, doesn't seem like much. But the actors bring everything to it; their suffering is both magnetic and painful to watch, almost as if it were a variation -- or an aberration -- of basic sexual attraction. Mulligan, with her bleached-blond crop of hair, resembles one of the cool-customer chanteuses of the '50s, like Helen Merrill but with a cherub's face -- there are shades of the young Stockard Channing in her, too. Mulligan is terrific here, and restrained in a way that suggests an actorly generosity unusual for someone so young: Her scenes with Fassbender don't so much say "Look at me" as "Look at him."

Although of course, it would be impossible not to. Fassbender is outrageously handsome in the conventional sense, but in this role, there's also something guarded and reticent about his expressions. He resembles the young Christopher Plummer -- his smile is gaunt and a little forced, like a death's-head grin. When Hunger debuted at Cannes in 2008, Fassbender -- playing Irish hunger-strike activist Bobby Sands -- was a revelation. Now he's ubiquitous, potentially to the point of overexposure, appearing in everything from comic-book blockbusters (X-Men: First Class) to tony literary adaptations (Jane Eyre) to David Cronenberg movies about the professional and personal tussles of Freud and Jung. Yet each performance, and each project, is so different from the last that it's still a joy to watch him. He has one of the gifts that great actors need: the ability to be focused and unselfconscious at the same time. He knows when to surrender and when to call every muscle and brain cell to attention.

Even though Shame is about sex, there's only one scene that qualifies as truly sexy, and it's so erotic, so frank without being explicit, that its culmination is devastating. (Brandon's partner in this scene is a co-worker named Marianne, and she's played marvelously by Nicole Beharie.) I hesitate to give away anything more, but I wonder who will find this scene more upsetting, men or women? My heart sank when I saw where it was going, and I thought it was just me, but when I first saw this picture, at the Venice Film Festival earlier this fall, the woman next to me also gasped. Fassbender and Beharie play the moment with extraordinary, and painful, grace: She watches as he essentially disappears into another country, a place where she can't follow.

Shame is, like Hunger, beautifully made, and similarly, it's about a man at war with his own body. And again Fassbender -- here playing a character whose capacity for tenderness is in danger of being erased by his self-hatred -- shows us something new in his face, whose basic features have by now become pretty familiar. He's the kind of actor who leaves you thinking about what you've just seen and wondering what he'll do next. His face is the opposite of overexposed: It's an unwritten future.

[Editor's note: Portions of this review appeared earlier, in a different form, in Stephanie Zacharek's Venice Film Festival coverage.]

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