Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Oscars 2011 — SHAME

One of the most "controversial" films in recent memory, Shame is rated NC-17 in the United States.

Really, MPAA? No One 17 And Under Admitted? Pardon the pun, but that's a shame.

If you're at all film-conscious, you've likely heard of Shame at this point: perhaps it was "the film about the sex addict," or the maybe the "film that has plenty of male nudity."

If you haven't, well, Shame is certainly both of those films. The erotic drama revolves around Brandon (Michael Fassbender), who is addicted to sex: physical, carnal pleasure and with no commitments. Sounds great, but the problem is he neglects things important in his life to satisfy his "cravings." This sounds a little gross, but director Steve McQueen positions the film in such a way that Brandon's addiction doesn't come across as disgusting or pathetic. In all honesty, Shame is more sad than anything else, and it's a profound meditation on redemption and obsession.

So what happens in Shame? Sex — a lot of it. Sex with men, sex with women, sex with prostitutes...and yes, even masturbation. Due to the copious amounts of nudity (among other graphic elements), I suppose it's easy to see why Shame got an NC-17 rating, but thinking like an old-fogey of an MPAA member does not excuse them for being out of touch with modern social progress. Breasts aren't Satan's creation, folks. Regardless of the prudes at the MPAA, this film is beautifully crafted and deserves to be seen by anyone mature enough to handle the human body.

Why is there so much sex? Well, because Brandon is addicted to it. He masturbates at work in the office bathroom to pass the time, he has a regular rotation of hookers, and he picks up women at bars every night. He comes in late for work after a long night of fornicating, missing important phone calls in the process. From the looks of his job, he's highly successful at whatever it is he does, and he handles his addiction functionally.  In fact, no one really suspects him of any perversion at all. Even when his office PC is taken to disinfect for viruses and his porn-filled hard-drive is discovered, his boss blames it on a lowly intern. Only once is Brandon physically punished for his sex addiction, and he practically laughs it off. The rest of the punishment comes from within, like the title implies. Brandon is filled with shame, and he lives with it uneasily.

Don't look at me!

The other "kink" in the plot is Brandon's sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Sissy is essentially a vagabond; a talented singer who couch-surfs her way around major cities, and is clinically depressed. She winds up temporarily moving in with Brandon, becoming the catalyst for a disturbing turn of events.

It's clear here that upon Sissy's arrival, it's not just Brandon that's broken as an individual. Maybe they were both sexually abused as children; maybe it was something else. Their back story is never really elaborated on, so it's on the audience to figure out why both of them are so mentally ill. Sissy's problem is her tendency to hurt herself, as the scars on her arms prove.

The magical combination of excellent sound design and pitch-perfect cinematography make this film a surreal experience. The score, a delicate piano sonata, sounds actually fairly similar to the opening bars of the Inception score. Ironic, because the films couldn't be more different. Nonetheless, that's the song that came to mind when watching Shame, and being compared to Hans Zimmer is most definitely not a bad thing.

A lot of Fassbender's performance is fairly silent. His character is the master of the unspoken sexual gaze, and the film actally cuts to a few sequences where Brandon undresses women with his mind. The film is best when words aren't said, and Brandon's telling facial expressions say more than dialogue ever could. In Shame, Fassbender's acting is incredibly powerful, and when the film comes to its conclusion, Brandon's melancholy is truly hard to watch. There's a reason the Venice Film Festival awarded him Best Actor.  (His full-frontal nudity requires a certain boldness, too.)

This is not to say the film is perfect, however. I usually savour films that have its camera linger on the subject, and Shame does this excellently. There are numerous scenes that are minutes long and exist on a  single take. When you view these scenes, it's obvious the film was thoroughly rehearsed, but the actors come across as candid and totally natural, making the camera shockingly transparent. But when the film decides to randomly jar you out of the immersion, it really stings. Take, for example, a full-length rendition of "New York, New York," by Sissy at a swanky nightclub, which is far, far too long.

While I'm certain Michael Fassbender will be nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, it's not looking likely he'll win. There were, somehow, better male performances this year. But we'll get to those.

What Shame could win, however, is Best Cinematography, and perhaps even a sound award. In fact, the sound design is really something to consider when the protagonist is prone to stare at people quietly. But the framing of this film is really what stands out among it all. The erotic lighting of the sex scenes; the casual, almost improvised exchanges; the shattering conclusion — they're all done so masterfully.


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