“Shame,” like so many films slapped with an NC-17 warning by the atrocious MPAA, is perhaps as well known for the fuss around its rating and sexuality as it is for the work itself.
In fact, “Shame” features a story with enough restraint that it has at times been labeled reactionary in contrast to the lewdness one might expect. There’s no sensationalism or lascivious content in this film about a tortured sex addict, but instead many scenes of great beauty, and an enormous sorrow.
That this warrants an NC-17 while sleaze like “Piranha 3D” is branded R-rated content is a disgrace.
Set in Manhattan, it follows Brandon (Michael Fassbender), an affluent, quiet man with an addiction to sex. His every moment revolves around carnal satiation, mostly with women, though not necessarily. The film never specifies this, though Brandon plainly carries a great burden. The sexual behavior on display is devoid of joy or sincere satisfaction. His needs are better served by anonymity; when faced with the prospect of sex with a woman that might care for him, he shuts down.
Brandon’s life, and with it the routine that satiates his desires, is thrown into disarray upon the uninvited arrival of Sissy (Carey Mulligan), his sister. From the outset, it’s clear their relationship fails a wholesomeness test, though in what way we’re left to speculate. She’s a wayward soul, her instability the antithesis of the sad order of her brother’s life, her presence ruining his essential solitude.
Here’s a film that, much to the frustration of many viewers, spells out little. What happened in their childhood that they speak about only briefly and in sad terms? Was it in Brandon’s youth that his addiction was formulated, or is that just incidental?
British director Steve McQueen keeps his characters at a modest arm’s length, the camera normally maintaining a distance, closing in on subjects for moments of emotional import. It’s almost a deceptive style, one that appears clinical but nonetheless allows us to feel the pain and emptiness of these characters. We see them hurt at a distance, and then up close.
Last year proved a star-making journey for Fassbender, who also played Magneto in “X-Men: First Class” and Carl Jung in “A Dangerous Method.” Since "Shame's" plot unveils only modest amounts of personal information, it’s as much Fassbender’s job to write the character as the screenwriter’s. Here, he imbues Brandon with pity that matches our empathy but doesn’t overpower it.
I have little argument with those who find this boring, or distant, or even pretentious. Even I didn’t find it enjoyable in the sense I normally do when watching a film I consider great unfold.
The Blu-ray includes bonus features such as profiles of both Fassbender and McQueen, "The Story of Shame" and "Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with Michael Fassbender."