Friday, November 25, 2011

Baring Body And Soul. Shame: A Review


Allow me a little discourse on intercourse.  I'm on the radical side of sex in Christian circles (surpising to me given how bourgeois I think of myself as): I have never accepted that God intended sex to be solely for procreation.  When I led the young adult ministry at my church, one of the refrains I was famous (perhaps infamous) for was how "sex is wonderful".  I am fervent in my belief that God intended his Creation to achieve pleasure from sex and that a husband and wife should have sex simply to enjoy the physical satisfaction of intimacy with each other without thinking about making babies. 

Note that I said 'intimacy', and this is where I part company with my Secular friends.  Sex for one's own physical gratification is empty, hollow, and ultimately leaves one unfulfilled.  This is why casual sex, so-called 'friends with benefits', and pornography are things I don't understand.  The few times I've seen a pornographic movie (thank you, Cinemax), my mind has been so trained that I did ask myself every time there was a sex act, 'how is this relevant to the plot?'  Moreover, I couldn't concentrate on the physical attractiveness of the performers (I'm loath to call them actors) because I was far too amazed at how awful their acting was.

I also found the actual sex in these 'Skin-emax' films neither erotic or tittilating.  I found it actually rather sad.  The performers may be simulating physical pleasure, but there was always something mechanical, something robotic, something perfuctory in the sex.  In short, they didn't seem to be enjoying themselves or interested in giving true pleasure to the person they're having sex with.  To my mind, sex without intimacy, without a sense of wanting to make the experience pleasurable to the other, just reduces sex to a mere physical activity no different than defecating or urinating.  The point of sex, I feel, is to not just get the physical satisfaction out of it (one should never deny sex can be extremely pleasurable if between consenting adults) but to give both physical and emotional satisfaction and yes, intimacy, to your partner.  Otherwise, sex for one's own gratification will be at most a temporary high and will probably lessen the succeeding sexual encounters.

While I admit I was surprised that my thinking on sex was similar to C. S. Lewis' in Mere Christianity, I came to my conclusions on sex versus love-making (and there is a difference) on my own, basing them on both my own experiences as well as observations of my friends both Christian and Secular.  Professor Lewis merely gave my own ideas on sex intellectual weight and prestige. 

Now, what did all that have to do with Michael Fassbender showing us his envy-inducing penis?  In truth, a great deal, since Shame deals with a man for whom sex is more compulsion than anything else.  His life is consumed with sex but not love, the physical side of it without the intimacy that truly brings about the pleasure it brings.  In terms of a character study of a man undone by pleasures of the flesh, Shame is a strong film.  In terms of causing scandal, I may be in the minority, but I find there really isn't much that should cause people to flee from it or be excited over it. 

Brandon (Fassbender) is successful in whatever he works at (the story is vague about what his job actually is, but I think it has to do with advertising/public relations), but he has no real life.  Instead, all his extracurricular activities revolve around sex: getting sex (either through volunteers or through cash exchanges), viewing sex (via Internet porn and magazines), or through auto-erotic exercises.  He doesn't look like he gets much if any pleasure out of his sexual encounters or self-stimulation.  Rather, it is just something he does. 

His life is disrupted by the sudden appearance of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan).  An aspiring singer, she quickly hooks up with Brandon's friend/boss David (James Badge Dale), a man who likes sex but is really trying too hard to get some.  In any case, he manages to score with Sissy, displeasing Brandon immensely.  However, Brandon has his own issues: while trying to keep control over his sexual desires, he begins a romance with Marianne (Nicole Beharie).  While she is not averse to a little on the side, she does believe that people should look for someone to connect with.  Whether it's a desire to finally let someone in or just being tired of how sex dominates his life, Brandon begins to clean house.  Unfortunately, cleaning house also means throwing Sissy out.

Brandon then indulges all his sexual urges in one lost night: he openly stimulates a woman and brazenly tells her boyfriend what he'd like to do to her (getting him quickly beat up), then after getting turned away from I presume a sex club he frequents, goes to a gay bar and allows a man to give him oral sex, culminating going to a sleazy hotel for a threesome.  After this night of debauchery, he fears for Sissy, rushes home, and finds she has slit her wrists, barely alive.  We end Shame pretty much where we started: Brandon is on the subway, attracting the attention of an unknown beauty.  She signals that she would like him to follow her out, and we're left wondering whether he does.

It might be just a personal issue, but such open-ended endings have never been a particular favorite of mine.  I know that we're left to forever wander, and at times they can be good (Inception for example).  However, I just didn't think we saw exactly what would have compelled Brandon to hold back on his urges.  I figure his sister's attempted suicide might have, but given how his desires trump almost everything in his life, it does make one wonder why director/co-writer Steve McQueen (with co-writer Abi Morgan) would introduce this element.

I think that's being a touch picky.  Shame on the whole is a strong film about a subject that could be salacious but turns into a story of addiction and the hollowness of an individual.  One doesn't feel particular sympathy for Brandon, but one always senses that the pleasure one gets from sex is one that he both seeks and never gets. 

Let me get the issue of the nudity out of the way first.  I'm not shocked easily, and I wasn't shocked by all the nudity in Shame.  There is a great deal of it: there are many nude women in Shame, and Mulligan is fully nude in the film as well, so the idea that this is somehow a showcase for Fassbender's Teutonic/Irish manhood is rather idiotic.  In fact, his penis isn't on screen all that much, so women (and I suppose some men) who might be tempted to rush out to get a load of a rising star's member will find that for the most part, we don't get to see it all that much. 

Is all the nudity gratuitous?  I'm leaning towards yes for this reason: I kept wondering whether we really needed to see either Fassbender or Mulligan fully nude in front of us.  How did it help in the plot?  I don't think it did.  The NC-17 rating Shame received made sense because of both the subject matter as well as some of the graphic sex scenes in the film, though given the subject matter it would make sense.  However, the nudity of both Mulligan and Fassbender, while perhaps logical to the story, I don't think enhanced it.  Then again, as I've said, I'm not shocked by much, and seeing Michael Fassbender as God created him is neither a selling point or something that would keep me away from Shame if I thought it a good film.

That is the positive thing about Shame: it is a good though not great film.  As I've stated, the open-ending was not something I was particularly thrilled at, and I found it curious that both the characters of David and Marianne basically disappeared halfway through Shame, never to be heard from again.  It's almost as if McQueen just dropped them or even forgot about them.

However, the flaws within Shame are more than made up by the performances.  Fassbender is already a great actor (ex. Jane Eyre) and a rising star (ex. X-Men: First Class).  In Shame, he makes Brandon not a lusty and selfish man but a deeply haunted one, a man who uses sex because he doesn't have any other way to bring even a semblance of connection with people.  Brandon is so consumed with sex that when we see his total collapse (as when this thoroughly heterosexual man engages in a casual same-sex encounter or when he becomes part of a threesome) it isn't to get pleasure but to get emotional release.  For Brandon, sex is no longer even for self-pleasure, it is to feel anything.

Side note: I wonder if he should get a Best Actor nomination for Shame and actually win, will they show a clip of him masturbating in the montage reel? 

McQueen also gets great performances out of his other cast members.  Mulligan (another great actress: see An Education) makes Sissy's need for love one where sex is not important, but connecting with people is.  She loves and needs her brother, and his constant rejection (in particular whenever she finds him in an ackward situation) pushes her over.  Dale's David is brilliant as the man who is trying too hard to impress the ladies, making him both clumsy and slightly sleazy.  Behaire's Marianne comes across as a regular person, interested in Brandon but interested beyond a mere physical relationship which Brandon is only capable of.

There are other things I should compliment Shame on.  First is Harry Escott's sparse but haunting score.  It is rather reminiscent of the score to RAN in that where normally one would expect a particular style of music for certain scenes (strong music for RAN's battle scenes, pulsating for Shame's sex scenes) there is actually a quality of mourning and sorrow in them because of the score.  Escott creates a mood of sadness with his music throughout the film to great effect.  Sean Bobbitt's cinematography doesn't paint the sex scenes (in particular Brandon's night of debauchery) as beautiful or romantic but as hazy, almost frightening (to compliment Brandon's mental and emotional emptiness), and the editing by Joe Walker also adds to what makes Shame a good film.

People going into Shame may expect something close to a porn movie, and there was more nudity than perhaps the film needed.  On the whole, Shame works despite the naked bodies because it isn't about sex but about how sex is empty without love.  Ultimately I'll say this: Michael Fassbender, it's very nice but honestly, keep your pants on. 


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