In the opening sequence of Shame, director Steve McQueen sets out to immediately establish the two sides of Brandon’s (Michael Fassbender) sexual addiction: the clinical side, expressed through crotch-level shots of Brandon nakedly strutting around his sterile apartment routinely opening the blinds and checking his voicemail, and the potentially hazardous side, conveyed in an exchange of disturbingly long, lustful gazes between the sex addict and a flattered married woman on the New York City subway. Despite being visibly pleased between her thighs, the weight of her wedding ring eventually guilts the young lady into ceasing her nonverbal flirtation and bolting at the next stop, with Brandon giving chase until the woman disappears in the throng of people. The scene would be unbearably silly in its attempt to communicate Brandon’s unbridled sexuality if not for Fassbender’s nearly imperceptible yet remarkably emotive fluctuations in demeanor. Without resorting to overt facial expressions or body language, Fassbender astutely and subtly exudes Brandon’s thought progression and conflict of emotions. The actor’s performance singlehandedly saves Shame from complete flaccidity.
Fassbender intimates subtexts about Brandon that McQueen seems unable to convey, adding an element of unpredictability to the character that heightens many scenes with potential danger. When Brandon’s freeloading sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), crashes at his place, we sense a possibly incestuous past between the two, not simply because he has a conversation with her as she stands naked in the shower, but because he tenses up when she touches him and he uses the same unflinching gaze with her that he uses to seduce other women. As he berates her for her careless lifestyle, he stares into her face while forcefully holding it only inches away from his own, creating an unnerving simultaneous threat of violence and sexual action.
Rather than matching Fassbender’s level of subtlety, the awkward and miscast Mulligan, in an attempt to convince us of her character’s extroversion, opts for a mostly exaggerated and forced performance, armed with a go-to technique of talking loudly. She conveys neither Sissy’s uninhibited sexiness nor her vulnerabilities, most painfully evident when she sings an astonishingly slow rendition of “New York, New York” at a swanky restaurant. Her crooning impresses her audience and moves her brother to tears, but Mulligan’s attempts at exposing some deeper fragility beneath her character’s sensuality fall flat, worsened by McQueen’s decision to shoot the song as a long close-up of Sissy’s face, shining a bright spotlight on the performance’s shortcomings.
Considering the film’s title, it’s indefensible how little McQueen actually attempts to explore any of his characters’ shame, content with contriving situations that saddle them with guilt and leaving it at that. Brandon’s climactic sexual binge, nearly operatic in presentation and consequence, exists solely to punish the character rather than to understand him. As Shame ends, he and his addiction remain as generic as his high-rise office job—this despite the best efforts of Fassbender, who can only do so much while shooting with blank cartridges.
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