Shame is the most unsexy movie about sex you’ll ever see

If you’re going into Steve McQueen’s (Hunger) Shame expecting lots of sexy scenes with Michael Fassbender having sex, you’re in for a disappointment. Yes, there’s a lot of naked Fass Ass and yes, there’s a lot of sex, but no, it’s no sexy. It’s not fun. It’s not even pretty movie sex. At one point, Brandon (Fassbender) is crying during a threesome and not tears of, “Oh man, my dreams are coming true,” but tears of, “I hate myself and I don’t want to be doing this anymore”. Fassbender absolutely makes Shame, much as he did his first collaboration with McQueen, Hunger, and he gives a performance that sets the high watermark for his career very, very high. This is the male lead performance of the year, just barely edging past Peter Mullan in Tyrannosaur for the most powerfully affecting performance from a leading actor. All the good and great bits of Shame are down to Fassbender. Take him away and the movie doesn’t actually have a lot going on.

Which is, um, why it probably won’t land in my top 10. Top 20 for sure, maybe even top 15, but probably not the top 10. The acting in Shame is superb—it’s not just Fassbender that turns in a good performance. Carey Mulligan is excellent as Brandon’s sister Sissy (we’re going to talk about that name in a minute), James Badge Dale (Rubicon, and once upon a time, Lord of the Flies) is very effective as Brandon’s sleazy boss David, and Lucy Walters (nothing I’ve ever heard of) and Nicole Beharie (The Express) shine as two of Brandon’s more memorable women. McQueen knows how to draw performances out of actors and really let them breathe and move through his scenes without a lot of interference. It’s one of his best traits as a filmmaker. When Brandon and Marianne (Beharie) go on a date, the scene is shot as one nearly-unbroken take and it’s lovely since it grounds the viewers in one perspective and gives us the feeling of spying on a real moment.

But let’s get to the heart of the matter, which is that the script, co-written by McQueen and Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), creates a fabulously complex character in Brandon and cheaps out on everyone else. The next most interesting character is the woman on the subway (Walters) that Brandon flirts with. Everyone else is kind of a cardboard cut-out of a real person. Like, Brandon’s sister is a mess! And she wears funny clothes! And she sings in a bar! And she’s kind of slutty! Sissy never really feels real. Mulligan does a great job of giving her some depth and handling some moments where we sympathize with her, but she’s a walking cliché of a little girl with daddy issues. The most interesting facet of Sissy’s character is her inappropriate relationship with her brother—she doesn’t bother covering up when he walks in on her naked and she climbs into bed with him to sleep at night. Mulligan handles this tantalizing dynamic between the two—Brandon later crawls on top of Sissy when he’s virtually naked—very well and I’m not knocking her performance at all. I just wish she’d been given less of a stereotype to work with. And don’t get me started on the cheapness of naming the sister character “Sissy”. Also, her singing. Oh, we’ll get to her singing.

I think what irked me about Shame was the overall feeling of artificiality. Brandon’s struggle is so visceral and real, yet the world he exists in feels fake. It feels managed. I get that Brandon is man who lives by adhering to a strict routine, but his apartment is that classic sterile ice cube that immediately screams “dysfunctional adult lives here”. And yes, Brandon is a dysfunctional adult, but his apartment doesn’t have to tell us that—his whole life is telling us that. For instance, from the moment we see his stark white bathroom, we know someone is going to kill themselves in there. Stark white bathrooms only exist in movies to serve as a backdrop to lots of bright red suicide blood. Coming from McQueen, who is a visual artist by trade, this feels like relying too heavily on common tropes rather than inventing an organic space for this man to live in. Brandon’s apartment feels like a prop, not a set on which he’s staging the elaborate ruse of his life.

Another scene that bugged me with its inauthenticness was the bar scene when Sissy sings the single worst rendition of New York, New York you’ll ever hear in your life. Upon arriving in New York to crash with her brother, Sissy informs him that she’s actually making money as a singer—pretty good money, she implies. She invites him to see her perform and Brandon goes along with his boss, David. We see Sissy in a couture gown, singing before an upscale Manhattan crowd in a tony bar. The notes to New York, New York begin, she opens her mouth, and out comes…a not extraordinary sound. Mulligan is not a singer. She’s not horrible, but she’s nasally and has a tendency to go flat on sustained notes. That’s a problem as the slowest…arrangement…of…this….song…EVER…has lots of sustained notes.

With a more forgiving arrangement, Mulligan wouldn’t sound half so crap and I felt bad for her, getting hung out to dry like that. Because her singing was lackluster, the scene doesn’t work. If she was going to sing like that, this scene needed to happen at an open mic, or at a dive bar where only Brandon and David showed up to see her. But singing like that—no, I don’t believe anyone is paying her well for that. Neither did anyone else in the audience. Also, this scene kills the momentum of the movie as we linger in close up to watch Mulligan struggle to stay on pitch through the song (she doesn’t).

Before you all start hating me for hating Shame—I DID NOT hate Shame. Shame is a profoundly moving film. It gives you a lot of food for thought about the nature of sex and addiction. It’s painful to watch Brandon blow up his life like he does. There is a lot working for Shame and I would highly recommend this movie. But after seeing it, I couldn’t help but feel like without Fassbender’s stellar performance, the movie probably would have sucked. There’s a little too much reliance on clichés. McQueen kind of cheated out of having to deal with some characterization and plotting issues (such as—whatever happened with Brandon’s job and his computer?). But what’s good about Shame is ultimately so good that the stuff that doesn’t work ends up not being that important. McQueen continues developing into a very brave director who’s willing to go to some places not many other filmmakers will. And Michael Fassbender is rapidly rising up the ranks of the most important actors of his generation.

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7 thoughts on “Shame is the most unsexy movie about sex you’ll ever see

  1. Emster

    I came out of Shame with two main opinions. First, you have to be mature to see this film. There was a group of grown ass people giggling throughout. I mean, why are you going to an NC-17 film if you can’t hold your sh-t together? There was absolutely nothing funny about Shame…especially the climax-adjacent subway scene.

    The second is that it left me wanting more. I wanted to know what Brandon and Sissy’s real damage was. At first I thought that was a good thing, but the more I think of it, it may have just been an easy way out. I wanted to k know about the obvious shared experience that got them to these points. The close two-shot argument on the couch was truly gripping.

    1. Sissy

      I haven’t seen it but i imagine some were sniggering because they were comfortable.. It breaks the awkward silence. Then again maybe they were just giggling because they saw Fassy’s peen!

      By the way, i am now changing my name 😦

      1. I don’t mean to offend everyone named “Sissy”, it’s just that when a character’s defining characteristic is that she’s “the sister” and her name is Sissy it feels like a cop out.

  2. sarah

    I haven’t seen this yet, but so excited. Fassy is pure magnetic in anything he does. I hate to say it, but I’m hoping he’ll take a really shallow role where I can feel good about ogling him. That said, I also can’t wait for his upcoming movie with McQueen [Twelve Years a Slave? I think it’s called somehing like that]. I’m sure it will also be amazing.

  3. Christiane

    I wanted to wait until I’d seen the movie to comment here, and Shame just came out in Montreal this past weekend. The performances were GREAT and the movie did really get under my skin. I understand some of the points you made, but somehow they didn’t bother me as much or at all, really. I do think that the script itself is not extraordinary (especially if one does not see the movie, but merely reads the script) but somehow it works onscreen, due to the interpretation of its two main stars. I usually hate dialogue that consists repeated phrases (e.g. Sissy on the phone with Alex (?), Brandon and Sissy having that conversation on the sofa) as I find it a lazy writing device and while was not impressive on paper, the different modulations in Fassbender, Mulligan and Badge Dale’s voices as they speak those lines made a huge difference: I just believed the whole thing from A to Z.

    One thing I found odd… I really don’t understand the hoopla in the States about the nudity in this movie that apparently repulsed many Academy members. It is so tastefully done and depicted, nothing feels gratuitous nor icky — except maybe Brandon licking his fingers in the bar! And funnily enough, I find that “Hunger” would have been a better title since “Shame” makes you believe that McQueen is moralistic and judgemental about sex but the movie itself is anything BUT judgemental. I’ve read many comments actually about it, how people rejected the movie because they thought it was some moralistic homophobic horsecrap and it’s too bad since I don’t agree with that notion at all.

    Btw, here’s a funny trivia I read from a SomethingAwful member who worked on the distribution of the movie in the UK: “When the film was delivered to Fox, in order to comply with DOJ regulations concerning the showing of sexual acts or performers, and the requirements that records with ages and names are kept, the producers had to go through every single pornographic image featured in the film and try and identify who the performers were. It was literally flicking through porn mags and DVDs trying to match genitals on screen with those in the magazine or DVD – for days! They made use of one guy who had a frightening ability to identify porn stars from crotch shots alone.” Hehehehe.

  4. You may have valid comments on the film itself but you are no music critic and that is for sure. Mulligan’s rendition of New York, New York May have been different but that, and Mulligan’s haunting voice made it one of the best versions I gave ever heard,. Stick with cinema critiques and resist comments on anything musical.

    1. Jeff H

      Two years later and no one will see this comment but damn I agree with you Rudy. Music is my life and Carey Mulligan’s rendition of New York, New York (I’m sure the movie’s musical director deserves some credit here as well) is absolutely stunning. She turns the triumphant into something longing and wistful when you didn’t think it could be as such.

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