I always ask myself what a film is doing for me, what it is saying to me, how it could be applied to my life, and hopefully, how it can change me positively, how it can inspire me. When I left the screening of Shame last night, I was confused, dumbfounded, and feeling a bit short-changed. What had this film done for me? I couldn’t come up with any answers.
But I also couldn’t deny the sheer power of the film, raw and compelling and frightening in its intensity! This film brutalized any notion of sexiness that could have occurred in a film about sex, as this is not an act that is explored for love or pleasure in this film. Brandon (Michael Fassbender, in the performance of a very young, impressive lifetime) is addicted to sex. It is mechanical for him. Something he has to do, but never enjoys. And it is something he cannot do with those he actually makes connections with. It must be cold, distant, detached. Sex is Brandon’s curse. What a sad premise for a film. And the premise doesn’t disappoint. The film is disgusting and awful, yet beautifully executed. Who can connect with this film? Sex addicts, porn addicts? Perhaps we can all gain something by watching it, merely to help us appreciate and embrace our ability to love others, and to encourage us to cherish them always. Brandon can’t love. Not even his estranged sister (a passionate and brave Carey Mulligan), who shows up on his doorstep and throws his private life into turmoil, can he find room to love. She has exposed his shame, and he deeply resents her for it.
The film never gives us much to grasp ahold of, no true reason to want to like any of the characters, no reason to care if they get better. The film spends its duration wading through deep waters of sex and nudity for what? Shock? I was aware that people like Brandon exist before I saw this film, so what is this film telling me? Can they defeat this curse? Can he get better? Director Steve McQueen unwisely never answers any questions, opting for a very open ending. That’s not a bold choice, that’s just not knowing your character, or just plain hating your audience. As an audience, we deserve to be rewarded for sitting through an hour and a half of depressing chaos and despair. We need to know if it was all worth it. What are we getting out of this?
The performances, though, are undeniably incredible. Fassbender and Mulligan are both so extremely raw and vulnerable and powerful that I feared they would collapse at any moment. They play their characters on the edge, and it is intense.
But to watch brilliant performances in a plot that goes nowhere is still not enough for me, I want a story. I want to go somewhere. It’s a character study, you say? Yes, but why study this character? Why depress us if the character can’t be saved, helped, redeemed, or even changed? His world is shaken, yes, in an explosive and powerful climactic scene. But it doesn’t change him. He shakes it off, so it seems, and yet I can’t shake the film. That’s not fair.
The impact seems to amount to, “Thank God I’m not like him.” For all that has been selflessly poured into this film, I should get more out of it than that.
Performances of the year this film may have within it, but film of the year Shame is not.
Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual content.
Running Time: 101 Minutes.
Released in theatres: December 2nd, 2011.