Tuesday, December 6, 2011

'Shame' and the aesthetic of suppression

Director Steve McQueen's "Shame" is not a movie to enjoy.

Hell, it's not even a movie to really like.

But beneath its finely honed superficial pleasures, between the edits, and underneath all the empty stares of its deadlocked characters, "Shame" is a provocative, devastating journey into the bowels of one man's personal hell. In Michael Fassbender, McQueen has undoubtedly found some sort of muse, an actor he works so harmoniously with, and one who's willing to push himself as deep as he can get (all the puns about "laying himself bare" notwithstanding). Together, the two have made a movie about addiction that offers only the slightest and most oblique chances of getting under its surface and hoping for any kind of personal redemption. It may not even be so much about addiction as it is about the almost self-flagellating shame its protagonist feels, and his battle to feel any kind of release from that dark cloud.

Fassbender plays Brandon, a New York businessman whose actual business means absolutely nothing for the plot, nor for Brandon. His life is defined by the sparseness of his apartment -- blank white walls convey an emptiness of meaning, while a turntable and several bookshelves of LPs and book reveal at least some kind of culture. In its opening twenty minutes, he may seem something of a Patrick Bateman (of "American Psycho") -- incredibly polished, stunningly handsome, and a man who seems to have everything worked out into the perfect routine.

That routine soon comes to only have anything to do with sexual release. Brandon calls prostitutes, devotes his online existence to watching porn and chatting with webcam strippers, masturbating in a bathroom stall at least once a day, as well as picking up anyone he can in the New York nightclubs he populates with his sleezy boss (James Badge Dale, who plays "sickeningly desperate" oh-so-well). It's almost effortless how easy he can attract a woman in one bar to have sex with him in an alley. It's shockingly aggressive how he "flirts" with a redhead on a subway car in one of the film's earliest scenes. He stares her down, never smiling; she adjusts herself several times, smiling awkwardly, never quite sure what to make of Brandon. He loses her in the rush of passengers, but their wordless interaction gets the point across without them needing to make it back to Brandon's apartment.

Words don't have much of a place in Brandon's existence, nor do they in McQueen's cinematic vocabulary. He seems much more at home with a disjunctive piano melody filling the aural space. Brandon never talks about his dependency on sex, his craving, his need for release. I say, the better for it. It might make Brandon impenetrable, but it creates a space where the spectator must be willing to meet McQueen halfway to work through the film. "Shame" becomes much more about what's NOT said, what's NOT shown. For much of its runtime, it's a series of vignettes, long sequences that build new levels of meaning without necessarily relating to how we predictably conceive of an "addiction movie."

The most disruptive force in Brandon's life is his sister, Sissy. As played by Carey Mulligan, she teeters through a wholly different kind of miserable existence. She fills her life with words and things -- aptly so, as she's an occasional club singer. From her first sequence, where she shows up out of the blue to crash on Brandon's couch for a few days, Mulligan and McQueen seed her depression deeply in her character. Her rendition of "New York, New York" -- shot almost entirely in a single close-up, is one of the film's most devastating moments. It's like a plea for salvation, one that seems to rattle Brandon. And yet, he detests Sissy. Possibly because she knows about his sexual compulsion. Possibly because of something more damaging from their youth (McQueen leaves it to us to piece it together however we prefer). One thing is sure: when the two are on-screen together, Mulligan finds the right way to provoke Fassbender into explosive rage. In just a few seconds, he goes from completely bottled to completely frightening.

"Shame" is filmed to complement the ways Brandon must suppress his compulsions. The camera at many times shoots from a very far distance, sometimes from another room, such that conversations are obscured. Sometimes it shoots in the dark, sometimes it doesn't move for a very long time, and sometimes it simply moves with Brandon -- such as a scene where he goes jogging late at night, trying to fight the restlessness of his sex drive, channeling it however he can as he passes a series of hotels and apartment buildings.

It's a rather thankless, pleasureless aesthetic, and one that will certainly be a turn-off for anyone looking for an accessible, erotic film. And on that last adjective, you're probably wondering about all that sex that earns the film its NC-17 rating. Don't expect scene after scene of Fassbender nailing high-class NYC prostitutes. If that's what you want, this is the wrong film. It's only in the last act, where circumstances propel Brandon into a "search for a fix" through increasingly hellish nightclubs and increasingly graphic sexual encounters, that the true weight of his compulsion and addiction become clear. Where most of the film's sex is filmed rather statically in single, occasionally aggressive placements, it takes on more disheartening tones and shapes as the film progresses.

And in truth, the cinema is the perfect place to explore sexuality in this way. The idea of "looking at" and visually controlling bodies, the eroticization of the body, turning the corporeal form into just another in a series of spectacles meant for pleasurable consumption, has been at the heart of many theoretical discourses on film. For Brandon, pornography -- sex as filmed event -- is like a 24-hour fix. There are several moments, such as in the aforementioned subway staredown, where Brandon seems bent on controlling that woman's body. The issue of power never enters "Shame" explicitly, but it's not a stretch to see this as a central problem for Brandon -- sex offers him a way to be in control, but it also makes him not in control. It threatens to consume him, even when he (vainly?) attempts to take some control in his life.

"Shame" leaves us in a moment where Brandon is poised between sitting and rising -- a decision that would dictate whether he does indeed have any control over his compulsion. It's interesting that McQueen should end the film in this way, especially since we the spectators MUST rise. Coming out of "Shame" is something like leaving an inferno (though one that might me more closely aligned with Dante's, given McQueen's penchant for charting the film as a descent into sin). It's a rattling, harrowing film.

You probably won't like it, or enjoy an inch of it. But I would dare suggest it's one of the more interesting and more accomplished character sketches of the year, because McQueen actually demands his spectators go beyond his accomplished surfaces and venture past Fassbender's handsome veneer. It's a film that pushes, over and over again, into places that are uncomfortable and occasionally difficult to grasp, especially since McQueen and Fassbender refuse to condemn or sympathize with Brandon.

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