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Mere Presence


dir. Steve McQueen
123 minutes

Those who haven’t seen Shame utilize curiously identical vocabulary to describe it. “Sex, right? With that actor in X-Men.” In some ways, it’s an advertising home run. The truth is, Shame, directed by British filmmaker Steve McQueen, has resuscitated the MacGuffin. Yes, it highlights sex (and often), and yes, Michael Fassbender takes on his role with rigor, but McQueen’s latest feature pushes in one direction and pulls in another. Addiction takes on many facades — the ferity, the desperation, the inability to withstand lack — and yet, for want of being a film about a sex addict, Shame reveals itself to be a precise, manicured portrayal of control, not its loss.

Brandon (Fassbender) has a tasteful apartment in Chelsea, a friendly albeit sleazy boss (James Badge Dale) in a nondescript corporate job, and effortless attention from women. All of this is unsurprising, intentionally uninteresting. Kindred in spirit to Patrick Bateman’s, this formulaic universe dims in light of Brandon’s bodily needs — if not a prostitute, a cam session; if not in the shower, then in the bathroom at work. McQueen visually ascertains this consistent boredom: like Brandon’s routine, the camera jumps from work to home, ass to tits, one impending orgasm to another. The cyclical pulsations of his needs are always clear: all ironies observed, Brandon is a clean addict.

Despite his libidinous nature, the face Brandon presents is charismatic. When an overwhelming amount of porn is found on his work computer, a vengeful intern is immediately blamed. Out in bars with Dave, his boss, he is observant, quiet. As such, he succeeds where Dave’s insistent, desperate approaches fail.

This veneer pleases Marianne (Nicole Beharie), his coworker, and they go on a date. He is a perfect gentleman, makes her laugh, doesn’t even try to kiss her. Instead, a request for second helpings: for a moment, there is a glimmer of his emotional desires. He likes her. He throws out his porn collection for her.

Sadly, a bad habit cannot be turned to one’s liking. When he tempts Marianne with an afternoon in a hotel room, Brandon finds himself unable to rise to the occasion. Like foreign objects, his emotions are rejected and replaced, with the help of another nameless body. He and Marianne never speak again, and they don’t have to: averse to sentimental complications, the carnal realm requires no such elaboration. Sex, no longer seminal, becomes excremental.

Brandon’s pace syncopates when Sissy (Carey Mulligan), the sister whose messages are deleted before they end, surprises him in his own apartment for a crash stay. She’s in New York for music gigs, is used to fucking up, cuts out of boredom and fucks for the same reasons. They are altered manifestations of the same character, but this nuance is made differential. Their relationship is intensely confrontational, and ambiguously physical. She makes the conventional mistakes: sleeps with his boss, lives messily. But these mistakes break the controlled sterility of his environment and for that, he cannot stand her — her mere presence reminds him of things that he has not learned to classify, repress, deny.

In her presence Brandon’s frustrated venereal energy escalates, and when the narrative crest breaks, it’s expected, almost insultingly so. After a particular tense fight with Sissy, Brandon implodes — he lewdly propositions a girl at a bar, gets beat up by her boyfriend, and in a self-punitive blur of events, travels all over Manhattan in search of release. One, a club, where he is recognized (“Not tonight, man”) and turned away. Two, a gay club. Three, a brothel.

Then, of course, a watershed suicide attempt. He returns home to find Sissy’s veins slashed, a crimson body in his previously pristine bathroom. When he weeps uncontrollably, clutching her wrists to stop the blood flow, the sound is muted — even the rawest moments have to be pasteurized. After he checks on her at the hospital, Brandon collapses into sobs outside the building. Again, our protagonist’s climatic sobbing is moderated, paced, and perfectly framed. Where Brandon disintegrates, McQueen congeals.

with the director

Unlike films such as A Single Man, which also rely on self-aware, stylistic cinematography to dress the story, Shame does not wear its beauty well. Like a poorly-chosen perfume, its presence does not flatter, but distracts instead. This is true for both micro- and macrocosm — the film’s potential heaviness is fluffed by its clean compositions and lambent pans over Manhattan, just as Fassbender’s attractiveness complicates the viewer’s distance from the topic at hand.

The most complex questions, as expected, are eschewed. Take Sissy’s final plea, for example: “We’re not bad people, Brandon, we just come from a bad place.” How perfectly vague. Just enough to denote tragedy, but not entirely evocative. For the filmmaker, this hint of turbulence is enough, in that it is chaos contained — never removed far enough from him to surrender to the viewer’s curiosity. It is a formulaic set-up. Wave the cape, and the bull will charge into air.

It’s a pity — the tensions between Brandon and Sissy were too evident to be overlooked, but neglected by the director all the same. Their bodily confrontations were in perfect sync with the film’s interests, but were deemed earth to leave unturned. Again, the delineations of Brandon’s addiction must persist. No one dares speak of incest, and yet, it speaks. In his obsession with forcing our gaze, McQueen struggled to extract Shame’s beauty, but it was unwise of him to ignore the beast.

Tracy Wan is the senior contributor to This Recording. She twitters here. You can find her website here. She last wrote in these pages about Keira Knightley. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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Reader Comments (2)

the sister is named SISSY?
January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMolly
I found his character to appear more dull and constipated than charismatic. Also, Shame brought us what will probably be the worst pick-up line of the year: "You like your sugar." GAG.
January 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

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