George Clooney recently joked that the pressure is off him to do nudity, now that Michael Fassbender is working.
We’re not five minutes into “Shame” before Fassbender’s big swinging dick—there’s no other way to put it—appears in a medium shot in front of a stationary camera. And while “Psycho” may have been the first film to feature a toilet on camera, this one shows Fassbender nude, from behind, taking a pee—not the sound of pee, mind you, but a steady stream coming from that aforementioned BSD, which, hanging in full view, had stopped swaying long enough to keep from spraying.
In the interest of equal rights, it’s not much longer in the film before Fassbender’s character returns to his apartment and, hearing someone in the bathroom, picks up a baseball bat and kicks in the door. There’s no intruder—only his sister (Carey Mulligan), who stands completely naked and doesn’t try to cover herself up. Brandon gets a nice long look, and so do we. In a film about a sex addict, such openness pretty much reveals any “secret” the screenplay might try to hide.
“Shame” is a 2011 indie film directed by Steve McQueen (“Hunger”), who apparently likes one-word titles. While it’s distributed by Fox Searchlight pictures and features a typical open-ended indie conclusion, that beginning, with its quick full-frontal both-sex nudity, has more in common with sexploitation flicks—the quick sinful, skinful “hook” before the film settles down into a plot with much less flesh. Apart from brief moments where a prostitute undresses in front of him in his apartment and later Fassbender has sex with actress Amy Hargreaves, the only other big flesh scene comes deep into the second act when he has a romp with actress Nicole Beharie. Otherwise, the emphasis is on the prison that sexual addiction has made for him, as we watch him fight it, yet go about his business as usual. That includes picking up women, masturbation, magazines and such . . . you name it.
“It takes a really sick fuck to spend all day on that shit,” declares Brandon’s boss, David (James Badge Dale), who assumes the lifetime of porn found on Brandon’s hard drive was the result of an intern.
That line resonates as we watch Brandon as he’s driven to satisfy his desires, yet repulsed by himself. Somewhere, guys are going to be thinking, unsympathetically, “Oh, the poor guy. Not!,” because Brandon seems to have a magnetism that draws available women to him, even when he’s playing wing man for his more forward and aggressive boss. But others will be thinking, “Yes, but what of the women used by such men, and the victims that virtual sexual predators like this create? And when this sort of “shame” mutates into rougher, kinkier, or younger sex, are we also to feel sympathetic? It struck me that whatever message that “Shame” is trying to convey, it’s mucked up a bit by such implications and the very sex and nudity and exploitation that it’s trying to make a statement about.
“I don’t see the point.”
“Are you serious? What’s your longest relationship?”
“Ummm . . . “
That exchange happens between Brandon and a recently separated woman, but we’re reminded of Sissy, who came to live with him in an act of desperation because she too is incapable of entering into and sustaining a relationship. Is it his fault? Hers? Both? Their parents?
You feel for both characters, though they themselves seem incapable of feeling. And that makes for awkward, if effective, cinema.
“Shame” comes to a 50GB Blu-ray disc via an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer that looks nearly impeccable. A deliberate, think layer of filmic grain adds a nice texture, while the level of detail and colors hold even in night scenes, with no artifacts to ruin the grim party. I’d say that skin tones look accurate, but I can’t remember the last film I’d seen all of Fassbender or Mulligan’s flesh. Only a few soft scenes keep this from a perfect score.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with an additional option in Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English SDH and Spanish. I thought that the sound editors did a particularly nice job of handling the ambient sound, which was a constant presence. And it makes sense, since Brandon always seems to have his sensors up, and frequent point-of-view filming gives us some sense of his interior landscape.
The Blu-ray combo pack features a DVD (with no bonus features) and Digital Copy of the film. The Blu-ray itself features scant extras. Everything concentrates on Fassbender’s character, and every short feature feels the same. “Fox Movie Channel presents: In Character with Michael Fassbender” is the longest at 5 minutes, and you get Fassbender saying things like “I did research and I watched a lot of pornography,” which he repeats on other featurettes. It’s the usual blend of clips and interview segments, same as the rest. “Focus on Michael Fassbender” (3 min.) shows Fassbender on-camera intercut with clips from the film, with him talking about how relevant the film is now because of people’s need for immediate satisfaction. “Director Steve McQueen” (3 min.) offers the same format and tone, but substituting the director, who says “This is a film about us now.” “The Story of Shame” (3 min.) combines outtakes from their short features and adds a few with Mulligan, but otherwise offers not much new, certainly not the look of it. Then there’s “A Shared Vision” (2 min.) with McQueen and Fassbender sitting next to each other and talking about the films they did together and the way they “click,” with talk of “the next one,” though with no specifics. It’s more of an understanding. As I said, there’s not much here. Add to that a trailer and sneak peeks and it’s still not much.
“Shame” is bleak and unrelenting, a film that exploits sex as much as its anti-heroic protagonists. Brandon’s routine, even interrupted by his sister, has a dreary circular pattern, and when we do get change it’s in the form of two very long scenes—one, a real-time scene in which Sissy sings the slowest rendition of “New York, New York” ever, and the other a jogging montage that doesn’t give us the same space for reflection or relief as it apparently does for Brandon.
The acting may be solid, the cinematography stylish, and the portrait of a sex addict—one which earned Fassbender BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations—truthful. In other words, it's good, but “Shame” can start to feel like you’ve walked in on a chronic masturbator one too many times.