One of the most sexually explicit films since Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1973), Steve McQueen’s Shame parallels that masterpiece in many ways, the most obvious being the stunning performance from Michael Fassbender. Both films explore escape through intense sexual activity, but Brando’s Paul in Last Tango in Paris (1973) was a on a flight from grief following the recent suicide of his Parisian wife, leaving him with far too many questions, wrapped up in so much guilt, forever blaming himself. In Shame, Brandon is not feeling guilt from the death of a spouse, but is being torn apart emotionally by issues from his past that he has not dealt properly with. Much of Last Tango in Paris (1973), if not all, was improvised, with Brando clearly in his element being permitted to create his character as he moved through the film, while Shame was clearly a scripted work, matched to startling images from its filmmaker.
The picture is a deeply dark and troubling work about sexual addiction, the sort of film that will alarm some viewers while others will surrender to it entirely and move through the picture with the characters, feeling their pain, struggling to work through their inner agonies. Brandon is a sexual predator, moving from place to place like a shark with heat sensors looking for a willing partner, wanting a physical connection and nothing more. Should he fail to find a partner in the bars and clubs he frequents he will find a hooker to have sex with, or as a last resort porn, which leads him to masturbation. Incapable of having any sort of honest relationship with anyone, the only person he seems able to connect with is his sister, the equally troubled Sissy (Carey Mulligan). When Sissy turns up at his home with nowhere to go he understands at once that her very presence will place restrictions on his sexual activities, and begins working around her. Listening to his sister have sex with his boss in the next room he has a ferocious tantrum, leaving us to question if it is because she is having sex and he is not, or because he is not having sex with her while another is?? Brando’s addiction to sexual release is so powerful he finds himself masturbating in the washroom at work unable to quench his thirst for more and yet more.
While is is clear through their behavior towards one another that something has happened between brother and sister in the past, it never becomes the thing that overwhelms the story. This is instead a character study, and a brilliant one, about a troubled sexual addict, who barely realizes he has a problem. As life moves on around him, Brandon begins to feel more and more in need of sex, not ever recognizing that what he really wants, needs rather, is some sort of raw connection to the human race. It’s as though he needs to feel flesh, to have flesh around him, warm to the touch, moving with him towards release to truly understand himself, or escape from the person he believes himself to be.
Fassbender gives a darkly miraculous performance as Brandon, alarming in its visceral intensity, easily matching the work Brando did back in 1973 when he was at the height of his substantial creative powers. It’s one thing to be naked on the screen, which Fassbender is throughout the film, often, it’s quite another, and infinitely more challenging to portray someone emotionally naked. I was reminded while watching him of the Kurtz monologue in Apocalypse Now (1979) where he discusses watching a snail, “sliding down the edge of a straight razor…and surviving.” Brandon is on the downward slide where he will at some point have to encounter his own heart of darkness and the face looking back at him, his horror, will be himself. Fassbender is simply superb in the role, seething with anger and rage, not even truly fulfilled after release, because he is at once thinking about the next time. His lonliness is etched on his face, in every pore, his disconnection from humanity the only manner he can survive, and his sexual conquests, becoming more and more unfulfilling to him. A sensational performance that may be too troubling for the Academy viewers, though we can always hope. Never forget that while they nominated Breando in Last Tango in Paris (1973) they are the same group that snubbed Dennis Hopper’s staggering work in Blue Velvet (1986).
Carey Mulligan goes deeper into a character than she ever has before, portraying a troubled young woman who also uses sex as a means of escape, though not in the same manner as her brother. Her work is darkly beautiful, often breathtaking, but we are aware through the picture this is not a girl you would want to wind up with in any way, shape or form. Hers is a brave and powerful piece of acting, letting us recognize she is among the most fearless actresses working today.
McQueen has quietly set himself up as one of the most innovative and original new directors at work in modern film. He thrives on challenge and risk, as Scorsese did in his early work, and both his films have a ring of seventies cinema to them. His choices as a director are never the typical ones,, which could set him up for failure, but instead are striking in their originality and bold fury.
This is one of the very best films of the year, and a darkly stunning work of art.