Dec

26

 At the first, long take of the film, as it opens, we stare at the naked chest of Michael Fassbender, the person whose grim life of privilege and addiction we are forced to endure for several hours. The unsmiling protagonist stays so still, for so long, that we begin to look for signs that he is still in life. Is he breathing? Will he eventually blink?

The too-long take is repeated in scenes that are of his sister, played by a gamey Carey Mulligan—a part that decisively removes her from the ingénue of "An Education" (2009)—and scenes that involve a mulligatawny of sexual couplings of protagonist with the paid and unpaid; with duos; alone; in stalls, at home, in public/private spaces, even at work. The overlong takes do not serve for much other than to remind us of what Peggy Noonan inveighs against in the Wall Street Journal in mid-December about the pervasive "flatness" of "movie depictions of our sexuality." My escort joked that men seemed to be leaving to go to the restroom far more often than for other films; but the sex was squalid, painful, not in the least joyous. Unsexy, in the end. Death is not defied by these matings, but somehow beckoned by their dullness and decayed solipsism. Embarrassing, for the most part. (It was probably prostate, not projection, that shook these men from their seats.)

In a current, curiously shadowy NYC, Brandon's carefully compartmentalized private life, which gives him unfettered indulgence for his addiction, is suddenly invaded and compromised when his sad, ungovernable sibling, Cissy, arrives for an unannounced drop-in and stay-over. Their odd familial interaction raises a few eyebrows.

Not one line of humor in the film. Not a minute of erotic enjoyment, for all the naked real estate and fleshly writhing. It reminds one of the Dustin Hoffman/Jon Voight dark-street, bankrupt-old New York icky icon, "Midnight Cowboy" (1969) for pre-Giuliani no-tourist Manhattan griminess. Or of the bleak ice-cold vision of Christian Bale's gloved metrosexual automaton, mid-Gordon Gekko financial scrimshaw, a feral murderer in the unwholesome, relentless "American Psycho" (2000).

In the linear and episodic unspooling of the obsessive captive of sexual encounters, SHAME does not feature much dialogue. Under the entire film is a dirge-like melancholic musical frieze that serves instead of missing dialogue. As much as there is a dearth of talk for the most part, save for bursts of unconnected fits and sibling spats, the scenes are cool, blue, icy surfaces: unfaceted silhouettes and vistas of Manhattan from different vantage-points than those Woody Allen devotees are accustomed to, the glistening City postcards of cinematographer Gordon Willis. Not here.

Brandon's apartment, in the low 30s, Midtown West, is scrupulously neat and featureless, as opposed to his squint-eyed undiscriminating prowl for new sexual partners for do 'em/forget 'em pairings. His wordless exchanges leave no aftertaste, like cheap wine, gasps and gulps that get no revisiting by the affectless addict. His life is clean to the outward glance. He appears to be a decent man, not skeevy as our mind's eye would predict, despite his panther-like visits to late-night dungeons, lonely subways and clubby brothels. His workmates have no idea what he does, where he goes, or with whom, when away from his desk. Events and world news have no purchase here. He is absorbed in his next barren assignation or, more likely, non-nutritive rut.

Brandon's compulsiveness is so blatant for anyone with half an eye that it is only his male comradeship at some unnamed but upper-middle job that convince us that men are not looking to ID each other's foibles. They don't wonder about his liaisons or solitary entertainments. But women are drawn. He flirts with the faintest flicker of a come-hither intensity. Moments later, they are silently heaving—again, for scenes with too much unclothed flesh, too much writhing.

The extended graphic orchestration of grimaces and groaning proves nothing, teaches us nothing more than we already know. McQueen could easily have chopped half an hour sure to have its NC-17 (was X) rating plastered on its official public window, the way restaurants proudly post their A ratings. Scenes without dialog run too long, making sure we get the poke-poke of this emotional battle. But the resonance is not epic. We all battle some sort of addiction, perhaps, though ours are probably less dangerous and time-consuming. And probably less lifeless. The film seems an orphanage for our lust.

Fassbender is a lock for an Oscar nom, and his face and body, while not memorable for the most part, are handsome and indeed attractive. Especially nude. A woman being pushed out of the theatre by her granddaughter, a wheelchair commuter looking to be in her 90s, was delighted to be asked her opinion of the film. Her 30-something granddaughter quickly interpolated she had been "bored" by it. (Yes. It is no Brad Bird "Impossible" action adventure.) Grandma, grinning broadly, slyly exulted, "He was gorgeous! I'm going to see this in 3D!"

Whatever would make a woman of 30 take her swee'pea elder to such a deeply unhumorous, profoundly graphic film with such a title, even were she unacquainted with the unrelieved, tawdry subject matter?

And in the end, the director plays games with the viewer, which may or may not make you even more antsy and uncomfortable than you've been throughout. Not quite a holiday movie. What is saddest is that this is the film everyone will continue to talk up, a daring Euro-approx that is pretending to a soul it does not evince. A 12-stepper would take the heart out of the thing. But then the film would have no excuse for making us squirm with discomfort.

Not a date movie. Even with Grandma's excited post-mount-'em.


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