27 December 2011

For Shame! The Story of a Sex Obsessed Man

I got on the bus late yesterday afternoon and found a seat across from a very beautiful young woman. I started to steal a second glance but it felt wrong. I knew immediately that my reluctance stemmed from having just seen Shame, the new film about a sex addict named Brandon (Michael Fassbender).

Watching pathological behavior is a sure cure, if temporal, for indulging at all. A viewing of The Lost Weekend (1945) would keep a normal person off the sauce for a bit. Director Steve McQueen --

let me just interject here that I think it terribly wrong for this gent to be using the exact full name of the late great actor who only left this world 30 years ago. Talk about too soon. I know its his given name, but how about at least going with Steven or Stevie

-- casts such a long unflinching eye of a sex obsessed man, that the viewer will long to spend a chaste evening in the company of aged aunts.

There is a relentlessness to Brandon in the sating of his copious sexual desires that would be admirable in someone selflessly serving humankind. But as his are strictly carnal pursuits, the story is imbued with the sadness of watching the addicted. There are short term lovers, assignations with call girls, work time jaunts to the john for quick wanks and internet porn aplenty. Anyone with a merely active libido will feel comparatively impotent. But any admiration will soon turn to revulsion.

To make the story a bit more than a character study, we are introduced to Brandon's sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who comes to stay with big brother in his New York city bachelor pad. She's no day at the beach either. Her problems are different in nature but in keeping with the sex theme, Sissy climbs into the sack with big bro's married boss.

Sissy needs big brother, for a place to crash, if nothing else. He is a sorry excuse for an older sibling. Not only does he fail to nurture, but he inflicts rages on the poor girl. Her ultimate action will come as no surprise. Of course Brandon can hardly be expected to help his baby sister when he can do so little for himself. He can do sex but love is beyond him. Brandon's one attempt at a normal relationship ends badly, despite the fact that Marianne (Nicole Beharie) falls for him. Any woman would. Brandon is suave and handsome. A real ladies man -- if he could just curb his appetites.

Shame is effective for a number of reasons. Principally among them is Fassbender's performance. He's so effective because he doesn't preen and act like some handsome would be stars, but embodies characters ala Sean Penn. You believe Fassbender because he is not mimicking behavior but doing it. Shame also works because McQueen's direction is a driven and persistent as his film's main character. He never backs off from the story. It benefits from being beautifully shot. It is never pretty, but always interesting to look at. Manhattan at night has looked better on film, but as a back drop for this story it looks just right indeed. The score is appropriate too. It veritably fills the mood of the story; particularly when McQueen uses the Goldberg Variations.

The problem with a film like Shame is where to go with it. The aforementioned Lost Weekend and The Gambler (1974) starring James Caan made very different choices about how to deal with their obsessives. The wrong choice is always a happily-ever-after ending. There is no such thing for the addict, who at best gets a daily reprieve. But one can show the lifetime healing process set in motion. Alternatively we can have the main character spiral totally out of control. Bleak but realistic. Finally we can see that the pattern continues. Life goes on, no telling what will happen next. The functioning addict in constant motion.

I always feel a character's fate must be consistent with what the story has depicted and the tone of that story to that point. Here is where Shame is subject to debate. Upon reflection  I was satisfied with the ending. Others I'm sure will have wanted something more. Or less. I'll not spoil it for anyone who's not seen Shame. I was  pleased with the film as a whole. But Shame is a difficult, if not an impossible movie to love. It is more to be admired. Anyone with personal experience or knowledge of addictions will be reviled by  while oddly understanding Brandon. The whole concept of too much is never enough is at once disturbing and familiar. Shame relates the story of one man's addiction and does so with power and conviction. And there's no shame in that.

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