BA­SIC IN­STINCTS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Strat­ton

AD­DIC­TION is no laugh­ing mat­ter, although it once was. Not so very long ago, ha­bit­ual drunks were con­sid­ered funny (Chap­lin and other silent comics spe­cialised in drunk acts) but are they so funny to­day? Whether the ad­dic­tion is to al­co­hol, gam­bling, smok­ing or other forms of drugs, it can, if un­con­trolled, lead to sick­ness, fam­ily break-ups, a lonely life, early death.

Shame, the new film by the very tal­ented Bri­tish di­rec­tor Steve Mcqueen, is about a man ad­dicted to sex. This, too, could have been the ba­sis for a rau­cous com­edy, and has been in the past. Billy Wilder’s caus­tic Kiss Me Stupid (1964) starred Dean Martin as an en­ter­tainer so ob­sessed with get­ting ‘‘ ac­tion’’ ev­ery night that he would com­plain of headaches the next day if he were to be de­prived, and this was played (suc­cess­fully) as farce. Mcqueen takes a di­a­met­ri­cally op­po­site ap­proach; as we saw in his award­win­ning first fea­ture, Hunger (2008), he’s a very se­ri­ous film­maker.

Hunger was also about a form of ad­dic­tion: po­lit­i­cal ad­dic­tion. The cen­tral char­ac­ter was IRA mil­i­tant Bobby Sands, who starved to death in Belfast’s Maze Prison be­cause he re­fused to com­pro­mise his po­lit­i­cal prin­ci­ples. He was played by Michael Fass­ben­der, an Ir­ish ac­tor born in Ger­many, whose fine per­for­mance as Sands won him sev­eral awards. Fass­ben­der and Mcqueen col­lab­o­rate again in Shame.

The cen­tral char­ac­ter is Bran­don, a suc­cess­ful, hand­some and young whitecol­lar worker who lives alone in a mod­ern, min­i­mal­ist Man­hat­tan apart­ment. It isn’t ex­actly clear what role he plays in the up­scale of­fice where he works — some­thing fi­nan­cial or le­gal or both. At any rate, he’s clearly good at what he does, earns a sub­stan­tial salary, and lives the good life.

For Bran­don, the good life cen­tres en­tirely on sex. In an early se­quence he makes eye con­tact with an at­trac­tive woman sit­ting op­po­site him on a sub­way train, only to lose her in the crowd, and, in­deed, it seems that when­ever he’s not work­ing at his job he’s ei­ther en­gaged in sex or re­gal­ing him­self with in­ter­net porn. He’s not in­ter­ested in long-term re­la­tion­ships and he doesn’t see the point in mar­riage (‘‘It doesn’t seem re­al­is­tic’’). In­stead, he picks up at­trac­tive sin­gle women in smart bars and takes them home for one-night stands. Or he’ll hire a call girl. Yet de­spite en­gag­ing in con­sen­sual sex with a pa­rade of beau­ti­ful and avail­able women, Bran­don doesn’t seem to en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ences very much.

Things change with the un­ex­pected ar­rival of his younger sis­ter Sissy (Carey Mul­li­gan), who star­tles him by emerg­ing naked from his shower one evening when he re­turns home. Sissy has come to stay. She has no money, no real job, no part­ner, and it seems as though she has turned to her brother as a last re­sort. It be­comes clear there’s a dif­fi­cult, pos­si­bly trau­matic, back­story in­volv­ing the sib­lings, whose re­la­tion­ship seems al­most in­ces­tu­ous at times (one night, feel­ing cold, she gets into his bed). He’s fu­ri­ous when she has sex with his mar­ried boss, David (James Badge Dale) — fu­ri­ous, or jealous? She also cramps his style. Bring­ing women home isn’t so easy when Sissy might turn up at any mo­ment.

One of the film’s most pow­er­ful scenes oc­curs in a night­club where Sissy, who has as­pi­ra­tions to be a singer, has a gig. She sings a very slow ver­sion of New York, New York, her eyes fixed on her brother, who is vis­i­bly moved. Clearly there’s more to their re­la­tion­ship than Mcqueen and his co-screen­writer Abi Mor­gan are re­veal­ing to us.

Per­haps herein lies the clue to Bran­don’s ad­dic­tion, though don’t ex­pect Mcqueen and Mor­gan to spell it out in any kind of de­tail.

An­other cru­cial scene il­lus­trates Bran­don’s in­abil­ity to com­mit to a nor­mal re­la­tion­ship. So far we have only been al­lowed to see him in­volved in love­less onenight stands or self-abuse, but his date with Mi­randa (Ni­cole Beharie), a fel­low worker from his of­fice, is dif­fer­ent. They have din­ner in a smart res­tau­rant, their meal fre­quently interrupted by an in­tru­sive waiter (Robert Man­tano), but the af­ter­math — a long, dis­turb­ing se­quence set in a ho­tel room — is a clear in­di­ca­tion of Bran­don’s prob­lems.

Shame is a Bri­tish film, though one of its pro­duc­ers, Emile Sher­man, is Aus­tralian. Sher­man’s fil­mog­ra­phy to date in­cludes such im­por­tant films as Rab­bit Proof Fence, Candy, Dis­grace, The King’s Speech and Or­anges and Sun­shine, so he’s clearly ded­i­cated to mak­ing films of qual­ity that will also, hope­fully, be seen widely by au­di­ences. There’s no ob­vi­ous Aus­tralian con­nec­tion to Shame in terms of cast­ing or con­tent, but it’s an­other pres­ti­gious pro­duc­tion for Sher­man.

In in­ter­views, Mcqueen, who stud­ied at London’s Chelsea School of Art and who has dis­tin­guished him­self in a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent me­dia within the arts, in­clud­ing sculp­ture and still pho­tog­ra­phy, has sug­gested he orig­i­nally wanted to film Shame in London but was un­able to find any­one in that city who would talk to him openly on the sub­ject of sex ad­dic­tion and how it op­er­ates. Ap­par­ently New York­ers weren’t so ret­i­cent, which ex­plains why the film was made there — and the Big Ap­ple pro­vides a very po­tent set­ting for the drama.

Re­ac­tions to the film will de­pend on how you see Bran­don. For many he will prob­a­bly rep­re­sent the worst as­pects of cap­i­tal­ism, the kind of in­side op­er­a­tor who helped bring about the fi­nan­cial cri­sis and who lacks ba­sic moral­ity both pro­fes­sion­ally and per­son­ally. Oth­ers may see him as a flawed, tragic char­ac­ter, a man un­able to con­trol his com­pul­sions; po­ten­tially a dan­ger­ous man, a kind of Amer­i­can Psy­cho.

How­ever you view him, Bran­don, as ex­traor­di­nar­ily well por­trayed by Fass­ben­der — in a frank, open, no-holds-barred per­for­mance — is a com­pelling char­ac­ter. Mul­li­gan’s Sissy, too, is mem­o­rable: vul­ner­a­ble, po­ten­tially tragic, a party girl on the sur­face, but in re­al­ity des­per­ately needy.

Praise is due for Sean Bob­bitt’s cool, crisp widescreen pho­tog­ra­phy and an in­tri­cate sound­track that en­com­passes Bach’s Gold­berg Vari­a­tions along with the sounds of the city Bran­don has made his home.

Why the ti­tle? Shame isn’t an emo­tion Bran­don seems to ex­pe­ri­ence; if any­thing, he’s shame­less. Are Mcqueen and Mor­gan sug­gest­ing, per­haps, that we, the au­di­ence, should be ashamed at what Bran­don and his world of cor­po­rate high-fly­ers rep­re­sent? That’s an­other ques­tion the film raises and then leaves the au­di­ence to work out for them­selves.

Michael Fass­ben­der is Bran­don in Steve Mcqueen’s new

film Shame

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