Saturday at the Movies: Shame

Shame is the latest from Steven McQueen, a writer/director who is known for boldly dramatizing intense subject matter (as in his last movie, Hunger).

Starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, I expected nothing less of Shame… but wasn’t totally prepared for its depth of psycho-sexuality. Certainly not a film for the shy or sexually repressed, Shame is a steep descent in to the tortured psyche, and the needs that drive us towards others.

Watch this Alliance movie trailer and read more after the break…

The lead figure in McQueen‘s Shame is Brandon, a fairly successful and semi-social middle-aged man who is compelled by extreme sexual desires to act them out. To be frank, the reason this movie truly works is Brandon’s portrayal by Fassbender; and I’m not just saying that because he’s so well endowed (though it’s a bonus!) McQueen saw great success with this lead in Hunger, and Fassbender’s appeal comes from his subtle treatment of a well-written character.

Brandon’s life appears to be well in order; good job, close friends and a real knack with the ladies. But this facade quickly gives way as it becomes clear that he is not entirely in control of his life, and his sexual encounters are being driven by some fierce place inside his psyche. A functional addict you might say, Brandon whets his sexual appetites by any means necessary but appears to have things under control.

That is until his sister, Sissy shows up on his doorstep. Played by Carey Mulligan, Sissy is desperately in need of Brandon’s help but is also an unwelcome guest. Though not entirely clear why their family broke up, she at one point alludes to some form of abuse. Sissy is also clingy and messy, but the real issue is that she forces Brandon to see himself in a different light, that of a brother, which seems to be the starting point for his personal shame. Sissy also presents a serious obstacle in Brandon’s efforts to curb his sexual needs, where out of both guilt and necessity he is suddenly forced to sneak around.

This hindrance and the idea that someone is depending on him is too much, and compels Brandon towards even deeper sexual desires. Brandon’s shame is heightened by being forced to call on prostitutes to satisfy his needs, and furthered when he tries to have ‘traditional sex’ with a co-worker but finds he can’t become aroused. Cyclically, this combines to intensify his needs and dials his sexual behaviour to extreme levels.

Now extreme can be a subjective term, but McQueen found a way to hit it home with most of his audience. Brandon, a clearly heterosexual man, is eventually driven to homosexual encounters – simply because he is in extreme need of sexual satisfaction. This surprised me, and maybe shouldn’t have. I come from a liberal background but most people don’t, and I figured the movie would hold back. The extremity of Brandon’s situation, which explores shame on a level deeper than most are comfortable to go, was fascinating and poignant. I guess some people would consider this movie to be pornographic, but I’d classify it as psycho-erotic; and yes there’s a difference.

In the end, it’s Brandon’s sister Sissy who both drives him to extremity and saves him from it. Her own inner turmoil becomes more clear as the movie progresses, and Brandon is forced to make a choice between her and himself. The ending is hopeful, but never reveals whether Brandon has broken the cycle of need or overcome his personal shame. It’s definitely one of those ‘ok, you decide’ type of moments, which isn’t necessarily satisfying but is at least well-presented.

Despite his artful treatment of the subject matter, the biggest “shame” was a disruptive New Balance product placement in one of the crucial scenes; maybe intended to give uncomfortable audiences an out through distraction? I can say this much, there are quite a few people who are probably incapable of truly watching this movie – and I think that is part of McQueen’s magic. His next film promises to be another intensely uncomfortable drama, about a man living in the 1800s who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery; but Shame is an excellent movie to test your mettle for McQueen.

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