Opening 1 Mar 2012
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) lives alone in an apartment and works in an office in New York City. He is about 30 years old and his life revolves around sex: masturbation, call girls, pornography, you name it. He can’t get enough, is never satisfied, never at peace, not even on the subway, where he seeks eye (better yet: body) contact with young women on the way to work. His younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives in his city and takes up residence in his apartment. While he seeks emotional distance to everyone, she snuggles up, literally and figuratively, to everyone, including her brother. She seems helpless, can’t reject Brandon’s married boss David, who initiates a one-night stand with her. This hurts Brandon and serves as a mirror to his own behavior. Slowly we perceive a change for the better when he invites his colleague Marianne on a real date, which ends in a personal catastrophe for him. It takes another prostitute to retrieve his self-esteem.
Director Steve McQueen will definitely not go away, and neither will Fassbender, who has already made his mark in the film Hunger (also by McQueen), nor will Mulligan, who has already made her mark in Drive. It is not my imagination that McQueen surreptitiously uses mirrors in logical places: the apartment, shop windows, the office, without really putting them in the foreground – just a mirror here and there, which unobtrusively calls your attention. These real mirrors become the symbols, while the living, breathing mirror in front of Brandon is his sister, who shows him who he really is. The best moment in the film is a rendition of the well-known song “New York New York” sung by Sissy in the night club where she works. She sings very slowly, almost without any musical accompaniment with the camera on close up, full face; never for an instant do we think of those other singers who have interpreted this song, e.g., Frank Sinatra or Liza Minelli. The moment belongs to Sissy all by herself and is probably the sexiest moment in a movie about sex, and it causes no shame at all – just awe – in us viewers. Brilliant! And Carey Mulligan really does sing it – no dubbing necessary.
A prominent manager of a Hamburg cinema said that the only reason that Shame was not up for any Oscar nominations is because the Americans are too prudish. Perhaps that’s true; after all the film was a big success at the 2011 Venice film festival where the international film critics (FIPRESCI) named it best film and Michael Fassbender won best actor. True, there is much frontal nudity; even the siblings dance around the apartment entirely naked, which I can not imagine in real life. However, these scenes are necessary if the topic is unrestrained sex and the resulting shame which comes from such desires. Filmed on location in NYC, McQueen said that he interviewed specialists for people afflicted with sexual addiction, as well as seven patients. Abi Morgan wrote the script with input from McQueen. She is also responsible for the script for The Iron Lady, so Abi Morgan isn’t going to go away any time soon either. Watch this film, if you aren’t too prudish, and anticipate more good work from this promising group of talented filmmakers. (Becky Tan)