“Why are you drinking?” demanded the little prince.
“So that I may forget,” replied the tippler.
“Forget what?” inquired the little prince, who already felt sorry for him.
“Forget that I am ashamed,” the tippler confessed, hanging his head.
“Ashamed of what?” insisted the little prince, who wanted to help him.
“Ashamed of drinking!”
Those lines from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Litte Prince capture perfectly the vicious circle nature of addiction. They came into my mind as I watched Shame.
This new film by the British director Steve McQueen (although the movie as such takes place in New York) doesn’t open in Sweden until January, but I had gotten two tickets for a free prescreening and was accompanied by a friend to see it. She told me that she had googled the title to find out what kind of movie we would watch.
“It seems to be an erotic movie, right?” she said merrily.
“Eh. Not exactly, not from what I’ve heard about it”, I replied. And it turned out that I was right.
Many sex acts but no intimacy
If you look at it from a technical viewpoint, it’s correct that Shame contains a lot of sex acts. I lost track on how many times we see Michael Fassbender masturbating, fucking various girls, sometimes two at a time, watching porn or just walking around naked showing the full monty in front of the camera. But even with this abundance of sex there’s nothing, absolutely nothing erotic or exciting about it. One look at Michael Fassbender’s eyes is enough to tell us what this all is about: addiction. He’s jerking off exactly like a drug addict puts a needle in his arm. It doesn’t give him pleasure but it kills some kind of inside pain he’s carrying, while it at the same time feeds this pain for the future.
If anything I think the movie is a bit off putting as far as sex is concerned. Suddenly cuddling a little and plainly holding hands seems like something that is far more desirable than having intercourse with someone.
As far as the story goes there isn’t much to say about it. There isn’t all that much going on as we’re following Fassbinder’s character. We see him at work (where he sneaks off to masturbate in the bathroom, which I suppose some men without addiction do occasionally, but not with this frequency) and we stalk him around in New York as he’s executing his addiction here and there.
After a while his sister turns up, wanting to stay at his place. It becomes obvious that while not a sex addict, she’s just as troubled as he is, but in another way. However in his condition he’s pretty much unable to give her any support. He’d rather just get rid of her so he can continue with his addiction in privacy.
So there they are – two miserable and alienated persons. We don’t know much about their past, apart from a hint that their childhood was less than ideal. And we don’t know much about their future either. This is not about telling a story. It’s about showing us some of the darker sides of life, taking us to places where most of us are fortunate enough to never have been.
I think this is the kind of movie that won’t work for everyone. It’s about as close as you can come to a silent movie without actually being one. Since we spend so much time watching Fassbender in various sexual activities or merely walking around either in his apartment or in New York, there is very little dialogue. Whatever needs to be said has to be said by other means and fortunately enough Fassbender has got what it takes to do it. His performance where he can tell a thousand words just by a look or a twitch in a muscle is amazing, one of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen on a screen this year. Carey Mulligan who plays his sister is also surprisingly good and quite different to how we’ve seen her in previous roles.
New York at half speed
Most of the time I was on board with the extremely minimalistic style of Shame, but there were a couple of occasions where I got an overdose of it, when it became so slow and subtle that I lost my patience. I’m especially thinking of an endlessly drawn out song performance where the sister sings New York New York in a nightclub at half speed and it just went on and on and it made me pretty restless. One thing happened during the song: the sex addict teared up. There was a crack in his numbness for a moment. But oh, the time it took to get there! While waiting for it to end I listened closely to the text, desperately trying to find something in it that told me a story, that gave me a further look into what was going on, something that motivated this scene to be this long, but in vain. I know that this scene has gotten a lot of praise from many reviewers, who consider it the best one in the entire movie. I just grew impantient, as I did during the long jogging tour that Fassbinder’s character suddenly goes out for. It gave me a good look at the city, but nothing more.
However my complaints about those cenes are are just minor quibbles. It doesn’t take away that Shame is a very good movie, definitely one of the better this year.
The theme is so dark and uncomfortable that I’m not likely to revisit it anytime soon. But no one can take away from it that it gives an unforgettable portray of sex addiction.
Shame (Steve McQueen, UK, 2011) My rating: 4,5/5