The Passion of Brandon
Steve McQueen's Shame, about Brandon, an ad executive and closet sex addict, is a fascinating passion play--'passion' in the older sense, of a dramatic re-enactment of Christ's trial, suffering, death, with Brandon as the Christ figure.
Difficult to avoid the religious overtones--McQueen practically mashes your face in it. Brandon (Michael Fassbender, McQueen's collaborator here and in his first feature Hunger (2008)) is like a flagellant purifying his flesh for God, only it's not a whip but his phallus he's both wielding and mortifying at the same time (convenient, when you think about it), on and against any available woman.
As with any flagellant turned upside-down and inside-out, the pleasure (like pain) is not an end in itself, but the means--to what, exactly, is the mystery at the heart of the film. There's a humorless fervor to Brandon, a tendency during the act of sex to see past the woman--past her clenched haunches, her heaving breasts--towards some unseen objective. At one point McQueen gives us a series of explicit images, and the music (by Harry Escott) practically pounds into us (artfully, artfully) the idea that Brandon is a pilgrim on a personal Calvary, an impossible quest that can only lead to disaster, one pelvic thrust at a time. You get the impression that if McQueen had used unknown actors and just tilted his camera a few inches to the right or left of the shot's focus, one might mistaken the film for something directed by Robert Bresson--back when Bresson thought there might be such a thing as a human soul worth saving.
And then--and here's the conflict of the film--we're given Brandon's sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who's everything Brandon's not. Where Brandon is prosperous, Sissy is homeless (she asks to stay at his apartment for a few days); where Brandon is cautiously self-contained, she is recklessly expressive; where Brandon as played by Fassbender is all hard angles and chiseled muscles (his flaccid penis being the only thing soft about him as he pads around his place naked), McQueen for a first glimpse of Sissy gives us right off a full frontal view: childlike, with tiny breasts and a slight pudginess developing around the waist. Later Brandon comes to watch Sissy sing at a nightclub and she offers a fragile, wavering interpretation of “New York, New York” (with its lyrics about determination and success in the Big City, what song could be more inappropriate for such a tentative performance?). McQueen gives us a gigantic closeup of Mulligan's gamin face, padded with dimples and a pair of plump cheeks, breathing into her mike: “I want to wake up in a city that doesn't sleep / to find I'm king of the hill, top of the heap,” and Brandon (in a similar closeup) finds he has shed a teardrop. The irony of Sissy singing that song is big--too big, actually; McQueen's firm grip here starts feeling a bit obvious, if not oppressive--and older brother can only sympathize. It's a crucial moment, a turning point: that drop is possibly the first sign of empathy to be squeezed out of him onscreen.
To complicate matters McQueen adds a strong undercurrent of sexual tension between siblings. Sissy is naturally affectionate; Brandon holds her firmly, and not a little desperately, at arm's length (he's like a cokehead asked to safeguard a kilo of cocaine). The tension awakes unknown needs in him--the need, for one, to have a normal relationship with a woman as another person and not some sexual object, not some mere receptacle for his sperm (again, you have this strong sense of foreboding that matters will not end well).
McQueen directs in a series of long takes, framing his characters in a relentless medium shot that on occasion follows them as they move about, but usually sits down patiently to wait for the scene to resolve itself. He repeats shots over and over, of Brandon standing at the subway station like a warrior-knight waiting to ride into battle, or of Brandon pacing naked in his room, a tiger restlessly measuring the limits of his cage. From Mulligan he elicits a minor miracle; where in Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive (2011) she was a rather dull young mother, here he uses her very same physical immaturity to give the film vulnerability, emotional accessibility, warmth.
Fassbender is the central consciousness of the film; his asceticism is our asceticism, his suffering our suffering, and the film is relentless in its fidelity to this idea--we only see or hear what he sees or hears, can infer only what he feels, thinks. It's a wearying task, carrying an audience's attention for most of a film's running time, stretching without snapping the string of sympathy between him and the audience; to do it while being for a large part naked and performing budoir gymnastics is something of a feat. Fassbender's physical charisma gives the film its magnetic pull; no matter what little he does or how much he seems to want to pull his shell tighter about him your eyes are still drawn to him, you're still invested in what he is about to do or say.
Shame largely succeeds, I feel, in what it set out to do. It startles; briefly, it even shocks. But it doesn't unhinge you. Can't help but think of another work about endless sex, with a wilder, far more uncompromising imagination: David Cronenberg's adaptation of J.G. Ballard's Crash (1996), about a disparate group of people who discover the erotic power of the car crash (Crazy? If you only knew). Consider a protagonist with Brandon's relentlessness but without the spiritual anguish; a creature with an insatiable appetite for sex who just doesn't care. Accepts his bizarre psychopathology totally, cruising the roads in search for a chance at penetration, carnal or metal or both.
Cronenberg shoots the novel with a pornographer's unflinching eye, depicting the most bizarre sexual acts with the calm professionalism of a lab scientist recording the mating practices of a rare beetle; he has Ballard's cold regard down perfectly, effortlessly translated to the big screen. McQueen is a genuine artist, I think, a romanticist with an ascetic's approach--but he's basically covering ground Cronenbeg has trod years before, and contaminated with the spunk of a more current, more unsettlingly amoral generation.
First published in Businessworld, 4.26.12