It would have been a (literally) ballsy move to open the LFF with SHAME and therefore a few unflinching minutes of full frontal Fassbender, but once the initial sniggers/murmers of appreciation/raucous applause died down we’d have actually been left with the polar opposite of 360: a genuinely great movie that actually has something to say about the human condition, and says what it wants to say expertly.
Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a wealthy playboy who fills his studio apartment nights with casual hook-ups, internet porn, empty flirtations, and liasons with hookers. His carefully balanced lifestyle is upended when his brash and capricious sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up in his flat and starts living with him – her own sexuality and demand for affection begins to make him increasingly uncomfortable, and consequently forces him to confront his own hollow existence.
There are a lot of parallels to found in SHAME with AMERICAN PSYCHO – like Patrick Bateman, Brandon has an ambiguous, well-paid job populated by grinning, shallow fuckwits, and there’s a gymnastic threesome scene between Brandon and two prostitutes that is reminiscent of Chritian Bale’s infamous flexing in PSYCHO, only this time Sussudio is replaced with the slightly more respectable sounds of Bach.
Where it most resembles PSYCHO however is in Brandon’s chameleon-like nature, that you feel has been developed over time in order to hide his deep inner torment. He tries on different masks for different situations – the playful, enigmatic suitor on a date; the dead-eyed predator at a bar; the embarrassed, apologetic friend at a club – all with the ultimate intention of establishing the sexual connection that he desperately craves.
Unlike PSYCHO, however, SHAME never alleviates the proceedings with period satire, or ultraviolence, or absurdist touches. While there is humour in SHAME – a surprising amount, actually – this is not the black comedy that PSYCHO is: instead, it’s an intensely sad character portrait that actually says as much about inner-city life in the 21st century as it does about addiction and loneliness.
At one point there’s a beautiful, extended panning shot that shows Fassbender jogging through the streets of New York: as we move with him, we see office blocks, vehicles, clubs, hotels, lights and people come and go in an instant, before he stops at the hub of noise, lights and action that is Times Square and Madison Square Garden. It’s tremendously evocative of that unique inner city loneliness: the feeling of being constantly surrounded by people, but always moving past them, and never really engaging or interacting.
Director Steve McQueen does a great job of presenting us a New York that looks and feels like New York without resorting to shots of steam coming out of drains and the Statue of Liberty. It’s a peculiar love letter to the city – there’s even an extended scene, shot largely in one single take close-up, of Carey Mulligan singing a pared down, rueful rendition of ‘New York, New York’.
There are lots of long takes in SHAME – I suspect this is because McQueen knows he’s got a special pair of performers here, and lets us see how electrifying they both are by refusing to edit around them. Mulligan gives her best performance ever in a career that is already filled with excellent ones – she manages the incredibly difficult trick of portraying a character who is an unhinged hysterical wreck with a controlled performance that never resorts to histrionics. There are also strong supporting performances from Nicole Behare as a potential romantic interest for Brandon, and James Badge Dale as his sleazy motormouth boss.
However, there’s no doubt Fassbender is the real show here. It’s a intensely physical performance (yes, he’s naked a lot), and a fearsome demonstration of screen acting. His scenes with Mulligan are breathtaking, with both actors realizing a supremely dysfunctional relationship in a way that never feels contrived or clichéd – you always sense that they are both skirting around some terrible secret that can never be articulated. He’s also totally convincing when inhabiting all of Brandon’s aforementioned personas, but never lets you forget that underneath he’s a coiled spring, his piercing eyes always belying the confusion and emptiness that resides beneath his carefully constructed façade. It’s a character and a performance so indelibly linked it could only have come from a totally symbiotic vision between director and actor – in this sense and also in its sheer, committed intensity, it’s reminiscent of David Thewlis in NAKED, not coincidentally one of my very favourite performances of all time.
If there are criticisms they might be that the film’s conclusions aren’t exactly revelatory and very occasionally there are moments when the film’s Bach-heavy score comes across as overbearing and portentous (though generally it’s a perfect fit).
Ultimately though SHAME is a shattering experience and a magnificent film – while brutal and draining, this is not a depressing experience (as I previously mentioned, there’s more funny moments than you’d think the subject matter would allow), and stands as a shining example of the currently thriving reserves of British filmmaking and acting talent. It goes straight in alongside MIDNIGHT COWBOY and TAXI DRIVER in the canon of great alienated New York movies, and I also think it’s an important film for what it tells us about men and male sexuality in the 21st century – while few people who watch it will have experienced the more extreme depths (not to mention frequency) of sexual activity that Fassbender’s character indulges in, there are probably more moments of recognition in his search for intimacy and redemption through sexual encounters than most of us, both men and women, would care to admit. It’s not only one of the best films of the LFF (London Fassbender Festival), it’s one of the best, period, in an already stellar year for film.
SHAME screens tonight at 20.15 and 20.30, and tomorrow at 12.15 as part of the BFI London Film Festival. It is released in the UK on 12 January 2012.