DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: TIFF 2011 - Shame

Sunday 11 September 2011

TIFF 2011 - Shame

Shame (2011) dir. Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie


By Greg Klymkiw

There is absolutely no question that director Steve McQueen is the real thing. Filmmaking is hard-wired into his DNA. He not only composes dazzling imagery, he is ALWAYS thinking about how to tell his stories using every available visual flourish. It’s not overtly showy like, say, Darren Aronofsky, but equally vital and exciting. McQueen is one of a very few contemporary directors who propel the medium into dangerous, compelling territory.

Directors like McQueen are rare breeds in these dark days of feature film – they restore one’s faith in cinema’s power to be more than a rollercoaster ride. That said, he’s still as much a showman as any great filmmaker should be. He cascades and careens you along the track with gusto. McQueen, for all his panache, chooses to tell stories not aimed at 15-year-old boys. His two features, thus far, have delved into lives of experience and, thrust themselves unashamedly at audiences – wearing darkness on their respective sleeves as a badge of honour.

Shame is about sexual addiction. It follows its central character Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a successful, reasonably affluent single urban professional as he devotes virtually every single waking honour in the pursuit of sexual gratification. He’s killer sexy and malevolently charming and he can pretty much sleep with any woman he sets his sights on – and does.

Unlike the sexually addicted 70s female counterpart, Theresa Dunn (Diane Keaton) in the Richard Brooks film adaptation of Judith Rossner’s novel Looking For Mr. Goodbar, this is not a tale of sexual awakening transforming into sexual addiction. Right from the get-go in Shame we’re plunged solidly into the trajectory of someone who not only needs to constantly gratify himself with bar-pickups, but prostitutes, online peep shows, a gay bar blowjob and just plain unadulterated masturbation. (Sex, to coin Woody Allen, with someone he truly loves.) In fact, when Brandon finally meets a woman he genuinely likes (Nicole Beharie), he can’t get it up, tosses her from his pad and hires a whore to sodomize with gusto against the picture window frames of his high-rise.

Brandon’s only real friend is his boss Dave (James Badge Dale). The two of them prowl bars together, but Dave’s approach is far too obvious and in spite of tutelage from Brandon, he ignores it and follows his own less successful approach. In fact, the only time we really see Dave score is with Brandon’s messed-up, suicidal sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who has insinuated herself upon Brandon’s space in order to get her head together.

It’s the relationship between the siblings where McQueen’s film really soars. Screenwriter Abi Morgan in collaboration with McQueen makes a wise choice to not specifically reveal the obvious pain the brother and sister have both shared at some point in their past. The hurt is there in spades, but never literalized. There’s nothing more annoying when this sort of background is ladled out ad-nauseum in order to provide easy answers or justification for aberrant behaviour. In fact, it is when a story takes on the heavy weight of morality, it becomes an easy way out for the characters to become pawns for us to sit in judgement based upon the storyteller’s own jackhammer point of view. This moralistic approach works in Looking For Mr. Goodbar as it is set at time when “aberrant” behaviour was a response to post-war repression from a previous generation and ties in with the character’s lapsed Catholicism and the notion of being punished, or doing penance for one’s sins. In Goodbar, the punishment is rape and murder – the snuffing out of a life not-well-lived. (I doubt I shall ever forget the image of Diane Keaton’s life-drained face bathed in the light of a strobe that clicks incessantly and ever-slowly.)

If I have a quibble with Shame, it’s two-fold. Firstly, the movie races to a “shocking” climactic moment that is inevitable. This might be the point, but it’s not dramatically satisfying. Secondly, I wish McQueen had a more pronounced sense of black humour and just a wee-bit of a trash sensibility to juice his dark tale up even more. Ulrich Seidl, for example, with Dog Days, drags us through a veritable sewage treatment plant of aberrant behaviour, but it’s often extremely funny. Rather than temper the despair, the humour actually heightens it. As for a pulp sensibility, I don’t think I’m asking for a Paul Verhoeven Showgirls approach, but Shame is about sex – a bit of snigger-laden Brian DePalm-styled exploitation could have done wonders to goose things up a bit, but also give even more power to McQueen’s tale of addiction and obsession.

Shame is as dark as McQueen’s previous film, Hunger (which starred Fassbender as IRA prisoner Bobby Sands), but where that film was physically claustrophobic (while being wildly cinematic), here McQueen opens up his palette to a myriad of locations. The result? More claustrophobia. This is not a failing.

In fact, it’s kind of cool.

Shame is receiving its North American unveiling at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 2011) and will be released in the USA by Fox Searchlight and in Canada by Alliance.

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