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Home » Culture and Criticism

10/31: Shame

Submitted by on December 10, 2011 – 8:46 PM9 Comments

photo courtesy Fox Searchlight

The specific buzz around Shame, and Michael Fassbender’s performance, did not fill me with anticipation. Sometimes, when a performance is repeatedly called brave or groundbreaking, the distinction between the bravery or originality of the performance itself and the bravery of the actor for taking a role that requires a lot of nudity or “ugly” gets blurry. Male full frontal is a lot of worthwhile things…but it isn’t per se acting.

Fassbender meets the bet. I could point to a couple of scenes where he goes too heavy, I guess, but it’s more than made up for in a couple of other scenes where he gets a whole novella in with a lip angle. The rictus Brandon gives that girl in the dive bar, meant to seem confident but actually a gentle breeze away from sobbing; and especially when David (James Badge Dale, who has come such a long way from dingbat Chase on 24) is hitting on the three women and Brandon is off to the side, knowing he could pull all the tail in the 212 simply by virtue of contrasting with David’s douchey full-court press, but also knowing that full eye contact with “normals” will reveal the unfixable within him.

This is the movie’s intelligence, that it understands there are things that can’t be fixed. What happened to Brandon and Sissy (Carey Mulligan, exactly on point with a character that could have come out a Courtney Love disaster)? We’re never told. We’re not even sure for a while who they are to each other; this is not a sibling relationship we recognize, or feel equipped to see. We imagine horrors. And then we see horrors, different ones, big and small, rendered with a simultaneous distance and tenderness: the tracing of Sissy’s scars. The myriad grim discomforts of the sex scene with Marianne. The pier pilings that look like gravestones, and how well the DP conveys chill.

The script does feel kind of divorced from itself, emotionally — like an exercise — but if it’s a conscious choice, it does reflect the content and Brandon’s frigid pathological control. If it isn’t, I don’t think there’s any other way to tell this story and keep it coherent anyway. The music is too pushy, though; I understand the instinct to gloss, or put us at a remove from, some of the material, but the director goes to it too often. “New York New York” is a big enough set piece that you can’t tell us what to feel on the soundtrack elsewhere. Ditto the repeated heightened breathing. It’s effective, but only to a point.

But the script and the direction get New York, what it’s like to try to have a conversation at an overly solicitous restaurant with a semi-new waiter, the pauses in significance to talk about the bread, the awkward subway goodbye on a date, the occasional profound loneliness of having all these other people around. Whether trust will save or destroy.

It isn’t perfect, but it’s enormously affecting on a variety of planes, and it’s not as hard to watch as you might think; it’s not a pick-me-up for kids of all ages, obviously, but it’s not that Solondz type of film where you’re just trying to get to the other end of it without cringing yourself into an aneurysm and you have to lie down afterwards. Fassbender is brilliant, and that is a room with a view, is all I’m going to say about that.




  • Seankgallagher says:

    This same director made “Hunger”, also with Fassbender, and while that was a powerful story, I thought it was more concerned with making the surfaces look good than delving into the story and characters. This time, I thought everything was used for the sake of exploring the characters and the story. And, as you say, there’s so many ways this could have gone wrong – not least of which there’s probably a sizable amount of people who look at this and think, “So, he’s basically sleeping with anybody that moves, and watching and reading lots of porn. And the problem is…?” – but Fassbender doesn’t put a foot wrong. I have no idea if the film itself will receive much attention at Oscar time, but Fassbender gets my vote for Best Actor. It’s amazing how he’s really able to dig inside this guy without any judgement at all on his part. I had more problems with Mulligan’s character, which wasn’t quite as well drawn, but she was very good as well.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    I’m really looking forward to this one, and not just for OMG FASSBENDER’S LITTLE BENDER! I’ve heard enough about the New York New York scene to look forward to it and I just adore Mulligan.

    The idea that Fassbender’s character is portraying what’s supposed to be the American Dream for a Young Man In New York and how the reality is so soul-hollowing and banal–yep, I wish I could actually make high school boys and college frat boys watch it. And the girls too, for that matter.

  • attica says:

    I worry that, with an NC-17, I won’t get to see this with a crowd in the dark. Which I think would heighten the various emotional responses. (Plus, let’s face it. The more money that goes to films with full-frontal boys, the more likely we’ll see more of them. I’m all about equality, see?)

  • […] – the real difference is how he feels about it and where it comes from. Sarah gave the film a good write-up over on Tomato Nation but later admitted that on another day, she might have hated it. It’s a divisive film, […]

  • Jeanne says:

    You nailed my thoughts on the movie exactly. I was also a little wary of it at first, having heard only about the supposed bravery of Fassbender…but he delivered in spades. I hope the NC-17 rating doesn’t keep him from getting recognized for it during awards season. The sequence towards the end really highlights Brandon’s struggle perfectly and Fassbender nailed it (pun not intended.)

  • Bea says:

    I saw this yesterday and my friend and I just sat there in stunned silence as the credits rolled. Fassbender and Mulligan were both amazing. I very much liked that you get the idea that Brandon and Sissy shared an absolutely HORRIFIC childhood but we were spared a mawkish recitation of trauma. It’s unneccesary and I wish more scripts realized that. (Also loved the throwaway line explaining Fassbender’s accent. Took two seconds and saved him having to struggle to cover it up. That needs to be thrown into more scripts if you’re going to cast European actors.)

    Toward the end of the film, I thought to myself, “You know, this really hasn’t been THAT graphic…” and then BOOM. Threesome scene complete with A2M. Um. Thanks for that.

  • […] however, is not sophisticated enough to win me over. Though people I respect have enjoyed it, all I see is an insultingly shallow story filled with ham-handed […]

  • Mnic says:

    I JUST GOOGLED A2M because I didn’t recognize the lingo and… Thanks. Now, I am still totally seeing this movie. I’m still mourning the fact that the only screening at the AFF filled up long before the cutoff time for badge-holders. But I googled that.

  • Kitty says:

    I wasn’t expecting the emotional gut-punch that this movie served up.
    The “New York New York” scene(s) and the very last one with Brandon at the pier really got to me.
    And dear God, Fassbender has the most perfect ass of any human being I’ve seen in some time.

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