Get Naked

Michael Fassbender can't keep his clothes on in Shame, a tale of sex addiction
NOW I'M GOOGLING PARIS HILTON: In 'Shame,' Michael Fassbender's Brandon can't get enough of Internet porn.

ARTIST turned director Steve McQueen's last film, Hunger, was about an imprisoned man starving to death. His new film, Shame, is the story of a free man gorging himself; perhaps there's intrinsically less drama in this second situation.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is ruled by his penis and his need. Through days and nights, this executive compulsively sexes the pain away. The art direction insists that Brandon is a man half-evaporated from this excess. We first see him in post-coital wipeout; cleansing himself, he prowls his whiter-than-white apartment, in the nude.

Commuting to work, he silently macks on married women on the subway. At his office, he desperately masturbates in the men's room and downloads porn on the company computer.

Meanwhile, Brandon is trying to keep his enormously troubled sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), at arm's length—not an easy task. The sometimes jazz singer has come uninvited to stay at Brandon's one-bedroom apartment.

I found it hard to get a bead on the exact nature of Brandon's job, one more point that McQueen prefers to keep impressionistic. The place is hip. The boss, David, played by James Badge Dale, keeps calling Brandon "bro" and "dude."

As in a porn film, the worksite seems to be an office for the manufacturing of double entendres. "You fucking nailed it today!" says David, accent on the "nailed." Brandon's fellow worker Marianne (the delightful Nicole Beharie) sidles up and asks Brandon if he likes sugar—for his coffee, that is.

There's a retro air in the film's American Psycho-style interior decoration and in Brandon's collection of LPs. It's always '80s night in the bars, with the Tom Tom Club, and Deborah Harry on the soundtrack—you keep expecting "Call Me" to turn up, a la American Gigolo.

As Sissy demands more attention, McQueen leaves the possibility of damned incest open, particularly in Sissy's fine, vague line to her brother: "We're not bad people; we just come from a bad place."

Speaking of full frontalness, as we will, the camera zeroes in on Mulligan's face for the length of her minor-key, overpoweringly yearning rendition of "New York, New York." Those who think of Mulligan as this eon's Audrey Hepburn will be weeping along with her at the brutal coldness and callousness of Manhattan. Others will feel they couldn't ask for a better demonstration of why there's such a long film tradition of cutting away from singers in close-up.

Shame's strength is the kamikaze acting by Fassbender. Every critic this side of the one at Highlights for Children has mentioned his frequent nudity. Fassbender is as brave as a lion for doing these scenes, but his other qualities are more interesting: the ruthlessness, the sense of panic and ravenousness.

Fassbender's best scene finds him fully clothed at a sweetly awkward, semi-improvised first-date dinner with Marianne at an ineptly run but fancy cafe.

Since Shame is an addict's tale, it ends showing us Brandon bottoming out, soon after his date with Marianne. This last mad night of soulless compulsion is meant to be alienating, but unfortunately it looks like wild fun, no matter how ominously McQueen scores and shoots it.

Perhaps Shame is arguing that Brandon's problem isn't his endless sex—rather, it's his guilt. Likely not. Note the squeamishness about porn (in a kaleidoscopic collage of smut as Brandon cleans his house); we're also supposed to share Dave's scorn for the "filthy dirty" computer on Brandon's desk. The computer catches all the viruses for Brandon, in the way the decent buddy in a movie catches the bullet meant for the corrupt cop.

As in the face of so many putative shockers over the years, I felt I must have lived in cities too long to realize how shocked I was supposed to feel. Unlike that other driven Manhattan compulsive—Mr. Don Draper, the Mad Man—Brandon makes us guess what he's running from and what he's running toward. There was a time—the time of Philip Roth and the Buzzcocks' tune "Orgasm Addict"—when people took this quest and this fleeing afterward more lightly, understanding that such monkeyishness never lasts long.


NC-17; 101 min.

Opens Friday at the Aquarius, Palo Alto

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