Mulligan in Shame

In recent years, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with polarizing films. Movies that split people into “love it” or “hate it” camps, and net themselves scores of 50% on aggregate review sites increasingly pique my curiosity. If nothing else, they provide fodder for great arguments.

If you’re looking for a new divisive film, look no further than Steve McQueen’s SHAME.

SHAME reteams the HUNGER director with star Michael Fassbender, this time having Fassbender play a sexual addict named Brandon. This man is rather well-to-do: he’s good-looking, has a good job, a nice apartment, and a snappy wardrobe. What is not outwardly apparent, is that he has heavy sexual compulsions to the point that his computer at work is littered with porn-related viruses, and he needs to masturbate several times a day. He seems to hide everything reasonably well, until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) – a vagabond jazz singer – comes to stay with him.

SHAME is very emotionally cold, and I think that might throw a lot of viewers off. It is in no real hurry to make its point, and seems to enjoy lingering in some scenes far longer than audiences would like to. It has also been painted with a lot of unsettling brushstrokes, as there is a lot of sex and nudity in this film, but so much of it comes without emotion. Because it all comes without passion or feeling, it makes you feel like you want to step out of the room. In some ways, it creates an interesting echo for Brandon’s addiction…but it will be up to audiences to decide if they can stomach his carnal habit.

With all of that said, the one thing that can’t be dismissed is the acting that is brought to the table by Fassbender and Mulligan. Fassbender plays Brandon in a way that makes you feel enticed, empathetic and repulsed all at once. He carries himself with a steely confidence, but as we listen in to his attempts at human contact, we realize that he is socially stunted and has real trouble making any true connections. Mulligan really branches out with Sissy. She steps outside of the doe-eyed-ingenue we’ve come to know her as, and inhabits someone equally damaged as her brother, but with a small flame still kindled inside.

What you make of all of this, I cannot predict. Given the large amount of nudity in this film, and the heavy dose of sex, I fully expect this film to get slapped with an NC-17 by the MPAA…thus even getting a look at it might be tricky. Even if you can track it down, most people hear about films involving massive amounts of sex and come into it with a certain level of mindset. Seeing a film where the sex is emotionless and mechanic might cause people to dig in and resist instead.

I count myself an admirer of this film…but if and when you sit down to indulge in SHAME, don’t say you weren’t warned.