Friday, October 7, 2011

Day 8 NYFF: In ‘Shame,’ an Unspeakable Addiction

The double entendres fly when Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and Marianne (Nichole Beharie) order dinner in "Shame." Photo from Fox Searchlight Pictures.

STEVE McQueen and Michael Fassbender are on trend to forming the sort of director-actor collaboration shared by John Ford and John Wayne, Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant and more recently Tim Burton and Johnny Depp as well as Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz.

The duo’s first outing was 2008’s much-acclaimed and decorated “Hunger” about the 1981 Irish hunger strike lead by Irish Republican Army volunteer Bobby Sands. MF gave an electric, stunning performance as Sands. Incredibly, the film was his first major role and SMcQ’s directorial debut of a feature-length film.

Three years later, the two team up for another fine drama with a one-word title, “Shame.” It makes its U.S. debut today at the 49th New York Film Festival and is scheduled for a wider U.S. release on 2 Dec.

The shame of the title is Brandon’s (MF) sex addiction. The guy just can’t get enough. He has sex at least once a day and if he is not having it he is imagining it, masturbating between meetings in his nondescript corporate office or watching the huge supply stored on his home and office computers, as well as myriad mags stored in his kitchen cupboards.

Of course, this all sounds rather sordid and seedy. And it is. Those salivating at the thought of copious coupling in “Shame” will be disappointed, though. SMcQ wisely suggests a lot more than he shows, which is far more powerful. After all it is not a sex film, “Shame” is a film about a man’s whose sickness is addiction to sex, the more varied the better. The sex that is visible is not so graphic as to warrant an X rating. In fact, it is aloof whether shot in dreamlike sequences or with a long lense. It is appropriate considering that Brandon spends a fair amount of time fantasizing about sex and has no emotional connection to his partners or the sex he witnesses.

The lone instance when the camera hovers is during the love scene with a colleague to whom Brandon has an attraction. The night before he got rid of all of his smut, even his personal computer containing myriad bytes of it. He craves a chance at true intimacy. Determined to have normal sex with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), he spirits her from their office to a hotel room at The Standard Hotel and its breathtaking view of southern Manhattan. The camera is like a slow-moving probe, recording every move, sigh, divestiture of clothing. Is this going to be a long scene reminiscent of the one in “Hunger” between the priest and Bobby Sands? It is as uncomfortable for the viewer as it is for Brandon.

Outwardly Brandon is a handsome, well-adjusted, respectful Yuppie type – and he really is but for his shame. As Sissy (Carey Mulligan), Brandon’s equally troubled sister who may or may not be involved in an incestuous relationship with her sibling points out, “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.”



It is not clear whether Sissy means Ireland where they were born or New Jersey where they grew up. Or whether it’s just their highly dysfunctional family. SMcQ doesn’t explain much. He said during a Q&A after a press screening of the film, “I wanted it to be familiar because everyone brings their own baggage to the film."

The director is British and his lead actor is German-Irish, yet “Shame” is set in New York. There is a simple explanation, “No one in London wanted to speak about it [sex addiction],” SMcQ said. In New York, the reaction was rather the opposite, making it a logical venue to shoot "Shame," which is laden with double entendres that add levity to the subject matter.

Through the prism of SMcQ’s lense, New York is a dark, dystopian, soulless place where people “live and work in the sky.” At night, they prowl like vampires in lowlit clubs and back alleys. Brandon is soulless, too, and full of longing and melancholy. He wants better but doesn’t know how to go about it. His quiet desperation is palpable and most obvious when Sissy is having sex with Brandon’s boss (James Badge Dale), only hours after meeting him. The noises coming from Brandon’s bedroom are tortuous. He seems to go through a range of emotions: rage, envy, desire, excitement, revulsion.

A scene from Kon Ichikawa’s "The Burmese Harp," which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film. It is included in "Velvet Bullets and Steel Kisses: Celebrating the Nikkatsu Centennial." Photo from 49th New York Film Festival.

It is another stellar performance by MF and it won him a best actor award at the 68th Venice Film Festival. (The actor also appears in “A Dangerous Method,” which also played Venice and debuted in New York on Wednesday, http://www.bit.ly/nInHX3).

Audiences who appreciated “Hunger” will probably embrace the psychological drama that is “Shame.” In the former film, the protagonist dies. In “Shame,” he also seems to die a sort of death. There is nothing shameful about that in the least.

Other screenings and events today at NYFF include “The Warped Ones,” “Crazed Fruit,” “Suzaki Paradise: Red Light, ” “The Burmese Group,” “Willem Dafoe at the Apple Store” and “The Kid With a Bike.”

Visit http://www.filmlinc.com/nyff2011/schedule to learn more about the 49th New York Film Festival: including schedule, repeat screenings, ticket and venue information.

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