TIFF: 'Shame' is a penetrating exposé of a sex addict's bleak, libidinous routine
A wealthy, thirty-something New York executive’s life is completely overrun by sex. I'm talking about an infinite string of anonymous, one-off encounters. Boinking in its infinite permutations consumes every moment of Brandon’s waking life, whether pounding one out in an workplace bathroom stall, preying on cute gals on the subway, treating himself to a bar conquest in a poorly lit parking lot or exposing his dirty escort habit, pressed up against the window to his downtown penthouse apartment. But Brandon's freewheeling addiction is suddenly threatened by the arrival of his emotionally needy, wayward sister (a fearless Carey Mulligan). And instead of repressing his mounting (it's true) urges, Brandon’s one-track mind compels him to seek out deeper, darker, and more dangerous fixes.
Irish actor Michael Fassbender, who just won the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival for Shame, puts his brooding good looks to optimal use, as he commits to an audacious, challenging part that required he spend a large chunk of the movie in various states of undress...shagging. But his performance is far from titillating, as there’s profound anxiety and sadness to his character, a guy incapable of intimacy and wholly overrun by addiction. It’s one of two TIFF films Fassbender plays in this year to grapple with debilitating sexual neuroses (the other being David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method).
But no matter how much sex Brandon has, he never reaches a point of saturation, constantly starving for the next empty tryst. With the arrival of Mulligan's Sissy, an emotional wreck with supersize dependency issues, come subtle hints of a rough upbringing the siblings have tried to work past. British writer/director Steve McQueen, who previously collaborated with Fassbender on his fantastic 2008 feature debut Hunger, sheds light on the very dark reality of sex addicts in a way that’s both deeply perceptive and respectful. McQueen’s visual style, often favouring intrusively compelling close-ups and long tracking shots (the one of Fassbender jogging through the streets of a late-night Manhattan is particularly breathtaking), allows us to peer into Brandon and Sissy's wounded souls. The highly charged classical music McQueen uses to score many of the hedonistic peaks is equally brilliant in building tension, while also slapping on another layer of dread to the proceedings.
McQueen has said in interviews that his film is about how the Internet has profoundly altered human sexuality, to the point where someone with access to everything finds himself imprisoned by that very freedom. Now that the film has been acquired by Fox Searchlight in the U.S., there’s speculation about whether significant cuts will occur to avoid that much-maligned (and ridiculous) NC-17 rating… And if McQueen will even allow the censors to have their way (I imagine he'd put up quite the fight.) Thankfully, Alliance Film handles the Canadian release, so McQueen's bleak masterpiece should be released untouched, exposed wounds and all.
Toronto International Film Festival | Until September 18 | tiff.net