September 13, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Although Fox Searchlight didn’t actually acquire Steve McQueen’s film Shame until last Saturday, in a sense the marketing campaign for the film began when the producers made it clear that the film would not be edited for US release, and would be distributed with an NC-17 rating. This quickly became the most memorable fact about the film, and will lead to some disappointed audiences when it opens in December. Not because there’s a lack of sex in Shame–there’s plenty, although none of it is remotely hardcore–but because the film isn’t at al interested in eroticism. Instead, it’s a deadly serious account of a man drowning in his need for emotionless sex.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is an executive at a blank-faced NY firm, and he’s good at his job, but really all he cares about are those moments when he can lose himself in sex. Specifically, in anonymous sex, with hookers or one-night-stands. (When he can’t actually have sex, he watches pornography.) He’s not a man who has relationships and then cheats; he wants no part–and indeed cannot function–in any relationship that requires feeling for the other party. He’s not a rapist or a serial killer–it’s all completely consensual–but in the sheer inhumanity and compulsion of his act, and his mix of lust and self-disgust, he seems similarly disturbed
Apart from his obsession, Brandon keeps every other part of his life under strict control–if anything, he’s obsessively tidy. His sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) is the reverse, a mess in every sense of the word. Sissy, a jazz singer, makes clutter wherever she goes: she’s clingy where Brandon is aloof; she longs for emotional connection while he repels it. When she shows up in NY and insists on staying in his apartment, he can’t stand it. (There’s a suggestion of something unsavory in their shared past.)
The film comes to center on their relationship, or lack thereof, and McQueen is unsparing. He gets extraordinary performances from his two stars. McQueen and Fassbinder had worked together on McQueen’s first film as a director, Hunger, and in a very different way, Fassbinder’s work is just as remarkable here. Brandon the Sex Addict could easily have been a joke, but Fassbinder’s combination of fury, charm and repressed revulsion is riveting. We’ve never seen Mulligan give a performance like this before–she’s a roiling mix of emotions, teetering over an abyss. (She’s so good she even survives McQueen putting her through a dirge-like performance of “New York, New York” that seems to go on longer than the original movie.)
McQueen began as a visual artist, and his compositions (photography by Sean Bobbitt) are remarkable. They’re often played out at great length, as McQueen favors having the script he wrote with Abi Morgan (writer of TV’s terrific The Hour), and then extemporized upon by the actors, performed in lengthy shots, with little editing. His use of music is also impeccable, and often makes use, Kubrick-like, of preexisting music.
Shame will be taken by many as a slow, cold, bleak walk on the wild side, and that NC-17 won’t work for long at the boxoffice. For some, though, it will be one of the year’s major films, and exciting proof that the director and his stars are among the most revelatory talents in film today.

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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."