dir: Steve McQueen
I understand shame. Believe me, I have a deep appreciation of shame, both the concept and the feeling, the horrible feeling, of shame.
I don’t think I really understood Shame.
The main reason is this: I don’t understand what it was trying to say. I think I understood what it said, in the way that if someone says to me “my cat’s breath smells like cat food”, I understand the individual words and the overall sentence. If the statement was made to me when I was standing at a shop counter asking for a pack of smokes, though, you can understand my lack of understanding from the context.
Michael Fassbender is a tremendous actor, and I’ll happily watch him in anything he does. All I did in this flick was watch him. He is this entire film, and he’s definitely a major presence, in or out of this flick, in or out of the nude. I still didn’t get what he was doing here, though, or why.
Let me be blunt: his behaviour in this flick, except for the visit to a certain type of club towards the end, is what most guys are like, or at least most guys wish they were like. You might think I'm exaggerating, but I'm sorry to say, ladies, that this is what men are like all day every day. They're pigs, and you only have the barest appreciation for how truly piggish most of us are. His character here is an alpha male who, for the purposes of this flick, is meant to be some kind of sex addict. That's meant to be the key: this is supposed to be a gruelling trawl through the dark world of sex addiction.
I find this a bit perplexing, because most of the guys on this planet do the same when they have the time, money, looks, confidence and inclination. In fact, let me phrase it more concisely: this is what guys who probably aren't defined as sex addicts act like, every fucking day of their delightfully full lives.
I'm not talking from personal experience, lest you think, dear reader, that I am raising myself to the lofty or lowly heights of gods amongst men like Michael Fassbender or the characters he plays. I am so far from being an alpha male that I don't think using the designation of "omega" would even cover it. But I do, unfortunately, know plenty about the male mind, more than any human should ever want to know, to the point where I despair for our entire species sometimes.
See, men live in this reality, which is a cold, grey, grim concrete world with brief glimmers and sparkles of joy and meaning. But part of the male mind, or at least around six inches of it, permanently resides in that porno fantasy land where sex is always potentially in the offing, always just around the corner, and is always a possibility no matter how unlikely or sexless the circumstances.
Very few men who aren't rock stars or celebrities actually get to live this out, but most spend their time in this headspace, which to me explains why so many of them act like drooling compulsive masturbators day and night even on public transport, and sexually harass women at work and other inherently sexless places like tax offices and mausoleums and still think everything's fine. It's why they pay women who could do nothing but loathe them money to have sex with them, it's why they produce and consume so much filthy, filthy smut, and why they are never happy with what they're getting, no matter how good it is, because they could be getting something different from someone mystically 'hotter' somewhere.
I've strayed enough so far, so I'll avoid going further into the psychoanalytical aspects of what dribble I think illuminates the male mind. Suffice to say, most guys on this planet are going to watch this flick and say to their partners, "Um, yeah, that was, uh, harrowing, um, it would be terrible, just terrible, to live like that. Thank God I'm not, er, like that at all."
I know there's something wrong with the character, but I think the emphasis on the compulsive sexual aspects didn't really get across what they were trying to say about what he was struggling with. He, being Brandon, not that it matters, and his sister Sissy, played by Carrie Mulligan, both seem somewhat damaged, but we're never privy to what's wrong with them, or what formative trauma might have left them both so fucked up. And I'm not sure it would have made enough of a difference, considering the way the film is structured. She's less a female version of him, and more a needy, more self-destructive version of a cliché.
The film starts with, and ends with, a train ride through New York's subway system. On this train, Brandon looks over at a redheaded woman. All he does is look, no words need be spoken. She looks back, and in that look is all that needs to be said. He looks at her not with the spirit of inquiry, as in, "wanna fuck?" or "Jeez, I'd really like to have sex with you". He looks at her with more of an expression of command, as in, "we are so going to fuck." She entertains all this, in the first sequence, she's delighted by it. She's aflame and almost swooning. But then she somewhat comes to her senses, and gets up to cross to the door, showing for the first time her wedding ring, as she seems to have dismissed the possibility from her mind. Brandon pursues her, to no avail, and then begins his sordid journey back to her at film's end, where something very different is meant to happen.
He bangs prostitutes, he bangs women who want to have sex with him in the street just because they've looked at him for more than a few minutes, he surfs porn at work and at home, and jerks off whenever an hour has 60 minutes in it. Like I said, an average day in the life of alpha male Manhattanites. Several times I felt and thought that I was watching American Psycho again, though perhaps without the same amount of slaughter and humour.
When his sister comes to live with him, things seem to get worse for all concerned, because she's a reminder of what he's like (sacrificing good sense or self-respect for meaningless sex with people who can't possibly connect with you), or because he remembers how he's failed her in the past. Also, to me at least, there's kind of the implication of something incestuous that might have happened to them or between them in their youth, which make things even more uncomfortable and fraught with peril.
When he tries to have sex with someone he likes (not just in the predatory sense), being a girl from the office that he has a conversation with and gets to know, it doesn't do it for him. She asks him about his longest relationship, and he says 4 months. But they get along nicely, like human beings, which is probably what turns him off the most. He specifically wants to have sex with her in a particular place, being (I really hope it doesn't exist) some hotel or apartment building where anyone on the street can look up and see couples banging (standing doggie, if you really must know) in the windows looking out over the Hudson River or the docks or something. When that doesn't work, what seems like seconds later he's banging a working girl in exactly the way he wanted, and all’s right with the world once he shoots his load.
Ah, that's better. Or is it?
No, it isn't. Brandon’s on a trajectory, a trajectory that doesn’t feel organic and doesn’t feel meaningful, and these kinds of “hitting rock bottom” trajectories are pretty well known and suffered through by audiences the world over. Let me qualify that: art house audiences the world over. It’s pretentious and facile, but at least the ‘climactic’ moment is deliberately anti-climactic, with Brandon getting it on with two lovely ladies in every position he can imagine, and achieving an expression on his face which was just horrifying, especially since its purpose is to show just how far from pleasure or release he truly is.
Fassbender’s performance is great, like in all things, and the film is exquisitely well shot, with real artistry and skill, rendering a lot of scenes the equivalent of gallery installations. The shot compositions of these quite often long, unedited scenes is particularly strong. Everyone else’s acting is good enough as well, I suppose. The long restaurant scene, interrupted perpetually by an inept waiter, is literally one long scene, the kind you don't see very often any more.
Maybe the flick works too well. It is depressing, or at least it depresses the viewer, just as it’s telling us that Brandon’s life is particularly hellish, even if it doesn't look like it has to be. But what doesn't work for me is that the really cathartic event that happens towards the end has nothing to do with his 'problem'. It's not caused by his problem, it's not exacerbated by his problem, and stopping something 'bad' from happening to someone else doesn't feel like it should or could change his 'problem', or force him to reconsider his relations with other people, sexually or otherwise.
But maybe it does, maybe it should, who can say. It’s an interesting flick to watch, but I’m not sure if it’s really a compelling portrait of Sex Addiction And the City. Maybe it’s just an insight into a variation of male sexuality, with some nice shots thrown in, and I’m not talking about the protagonist’s junk.
I’m not sure what really underpins all of this, in the end, what meaning or solace I’m supposed to walk away with without having to be told.
Other than what it’s like to be a guy in this world, and that I already know.
6 ways in which men are pigs, and we already knew it out of 10
"We're not bad people. We just come from a bad place." - don't we all - Shame