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David Thomson on Films: Why Does This Movie Want Us to Feel So Miserable About Sex?

What do you expect from a film called Shame with an NC-17 rating? Right at the start we see Brandon awake in the pale blue sheets of his bed. He gets up, goes to the bathroom, and turns around. He has a penis, and I suppose it is Michael Fassbender’s. So many of the things an actor brings to a picture are his parts, and it is up to us and the whole project to decide whether they also belong to a credible and interesting fictional character.

Brandon exists alone in a Manhattan apartment with those bed sheets and his situation. He is obsessed with uninvolved sex: He picks up ten-minute stands in bars; he ravishes women on the subway just by looking at them; he has chat-room sex on the Internet and he is such a connoisseur of pornography his workplace computer has been taken away to be purged; so he goes to the men’s room at the office to masturbate. He can’t get enough, but it’s never enough. He suffers from that ominous word in the film’s title. So there’s not much fun in Brandon’s routine—unless watching is the secret to fun. But we are the watchers, aren’t we? Have we come to be ashamed or disgraced, or to get a look at Fassbender? Suppose the film had been called Pleasure? Aren’t we allowed a little of that in watching? Or are we meant to be downcast, too?

In short, Shame means to show us a lot of sexual activity with unusual candor or directness in a mainstream film (hence the rating), while asserting that Brandon’s urge is driving him to misery and ultimate collapse in the sad rain falling on a desolate city pier. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt is meticulously harrowing in his deprived color scheme and the ordeal of New York. Quantities of Goldberg Variations mingle with the hiss of traffic so that you wish J. S. Bach still had an agent.

We never know much about Brandon, let alone why he has his situation. He says he came from Ireland to New Jersey as a teenager, but that’s no help. He cannot make a relationship with any of his women. (In his relentless pilgrimage, he even tries gay sex!) There would hardly be a movie without the arrival of his sister, Sissie (Carey Mulligan). She comes from Los Angeles, and says she is a singer. The film tries to support this by having her sing all of “New York, New York,” slowly, and Brandon sheds a tear over it (a tear by Faberge?), though I don’t think the “singer” status is proved. Sissie asks to stay with her brother, because she needs a place and wants to make contact with him. But Brandon is so fixedly alone, when poor Sissie creeps into his bed for sibling comfort he roars at her to get out.

If I sound despondent over this, I won’t apologize. Carey Mulligan is as touching as ever, though I wonder if her woeful look isn’t because she is weary of the pained roles she is getting. Michael Fassbender is clearly the actor of the moment, and he carries this film for 99 minutes on his commanding, ravaged looks and sheer courage. He is like a fallen god and a rising demon and could not be better—unless he smiled and enjoyed something.

This is a grave, if not pretentious film. It is directed by the Londoner, Steve McQueen, and he and Fassbender did Hunger before this, an intense study of a hunger-strike to the death by Bobby Sands of the I.R.A. McQueen and Abi Morgan wrote the script for Shame, and there is good talk, even if—as one hears—some of it was improvised.

The problem is the predictability hammering on the unhappiness. Brandon’s anguish and Sissie’s forlorn attempt to reach him are clear-cut very early. This is a movie that spoils its own ending. It is as fervently good-looking as those duck-egg bed sheets, but the look never gets past advertising and into insight. (The rumpled sheets are the film’s poster.) There are sequences less integrated in a drama than helplessly and artily observed. When Brandon jogs through the streets at night, it’s only exercise, not a revelation. The tracking shot that goes with him is elegant and McQueen does those things with deftness—the subway scene where Brandon, in silence, has virtual sex with a young woman (Lucy Walters) is worthy of Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill. But that’s a warning recommendation if you think of the dead end that enveloped De Palma, no matter that he had more humor than interests McQueen.

Shame is part of a trend in which talented young filmmakers assume the cinema is a medium where we watch without understanding or sympathy. They have reasons for coming to that conclusion. For decades movies smothered themselves in sympathy and emphatic understanding so alienation has to have its turn. But that’s no justification for such pretty blankness and the hiring of Mr. Fassbender’s penis.

Of course, it’s his part to play with, and Fassbender is guaranteed several years of exceptional stardom. It’s not just that he’s intelligent and bold; he seems to have lived. He looks and feels more than thirty-four. But that means he has more to tell us about Brandon. This could have been a challenging experience if he’d enjoyed his pursuit and defended it against Sissie’s complaints. Just like Sissie, the movie begs for that conversation to be deepened. As it is, the film’s numb attitude assumes that Brandon’s problem is beyond reach or rescue. So why are we watching, except for high-tone misery and something close to pornography?

I wondered: Is Brandon descended from Brando? Nearly forty years ago, in Last Tango in Paris, Marlon Brando declined to let Bernardo Bertolucci film his penis because he felt that was misuse of an actor. Yet he never said anything about the prolonged display of his co-star Maria Schneider’s nakedness. Last Tango looks more awkward or embarrassed now. Shame has those feelings already. But Brando revealed so much when he talked about his character’s past. Equally, Brandon is at his sexiest when talking to a woman or just looking at her. The NC-17 action is not as essential as it needs to be. The couplings and the body parts feel like movie set-ups, obliged to hide or blur erogenous zones.

But why feel shame over sex? Once upon a time that regret sprang from repression and frustration, and now here’s a film where an angry Brandon puts the magazines, the porn tapes, and the computer in the trash like dirty or horrifying stuff. If McQueen thinks Brandon deserves to be ashamed, then he needs to examine his habit more closely. I don’t mean put a shrink in the film. But I do mean consider what a shrink hopes for from a subject—try to tell your story.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.