Sunday 15 September 2013

Movie Review: Shame (2011)

A stark examination of sexual addiction, Shame lays bare the overwhelming internal forces that can take absolute control of human behaviour, leaving nothing but emotional destruction in their wake.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) lives alone in New York, suffering from severe sex addiction. He chases strangers looking for quick anonymous sex, regularly pays for the services of prostitutes, cannot help but masturbate at the office, and surfs for on-line pornography during work hours as a matter of course, causing his office computer to be seized due to the proliferation of viruses. His boss David (James Badge Dale) is a married womanizer who gets his kicks by attempting to seduce every woman he sees. Brandon does not care for seduction; he just needs the sex, and cannot handle neither courtship nor emotional investment.

Brandon's sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) washes up at his apartment. A drug-addicted fledgling lounge singer, Sissy's life is one sailing away from a total ship wreck. David immediately makes a move on Sissy, to the disgust of Brandon, and he is unable to help his sister deal with any of her issues. Brandon realizes that he needs help, and attempts a normal date with co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie). But overcoming the disease controlling his every action is much more difficult than just throwing away his porn collection.

Director Steve McQueen delivers a harrowing journey into the life of a man gradually disintegrating due to a malfunctioning mind. Shame has no moments of levity, humour or relief; the film sets up permanent camp where Brandon is, a hell where the constant need for sex dominates every other aspect of life. McQueen, who co-wrote the script with Abi Morgan, is immediately able to de-eroticize Brandon's version of sex. An itch that needs constant scratching delivers pain rather than pleasure, and Brandon is in a state of constant agony, descending towards bleak non-functionality.

The film is awash in darkness and sickly grays and greens, the aesthetic as gloomy as Brandon's outlook. McQueen allows his camera to linger on faces and expressions, and most of the dialogue in Brandon's life is awkward small talk, human interaction being an inconvenience to be overcome between fixes. The date between Brandon and Marianne, as he forces himself into a few hours of male-female interaction that comes routinely to others, is a luscious study of the uncomfortable, Brandon possessing all the hesitant skills of a young teenager when it comes to sustaining adult conversations.

Michael Fassbender oozes pain as Brandon, using his lanky gait to display total lack of social comfort, his eyes evoking lust and pain simultaneously. It's a brave yet dominating performance of physical distress resulting from having to conceal ongoing emotional anguish. In an equally raw performance, Carey Mulligan allows Sissy to be the mirror that Brandon does not want to see. Like her brother Sissy is also an addict, but more willing to talk about it, forcing Brandon to either confront his demons or kick her out. Mulligan also strikes one of the emotional peaks in the movie, her one-take rendition of New York, New York more a yearning for what will never be rather than a self-assured commitment to strive for glory.

Towards the end of Shame, Brandon's uncontrolled quest for sex hurtles him into an unplanned sexual encounter in a club, followed by a rush into a threesome, neither pleasurable, both excruciating calls for help in search of relief that is only ever temporary. The spiral tightens, the options narrow, and without help, Brandon's future is ever darkening.

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