SHAME **** (out of five)
If you’ve heard that Steve McQueen’s new film Shame is about sex addiction, and you don’t think that’s for you, you may rob yourself of an extraordinary experience. It is certainly about a character, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) who suffers from sex addiction – but the film is about addiction in the broader sense, and it immediately joins the classics of the genre, including Requiem for a Dream, The Man With The Golden Arm, Drugstore Cowboy, Days of Wine and Roses and Leaving Las Vegas.
In style and tone, however, it is like none of those films. McQueen and Fassbender (previous collaborators on the incredible film Hunger, about hunger-striker Bobby Sands) have placed Brandon in the thick of a dense, lively, über-populated Manhattan and managed to make him simultaneously a Prince of that city and also its loneliest inhabitant. A man with all the trimmings – a terrific and highly lucrative job, an awesome bachelor’s apartment, and, perhaps most importantly for the film to work as it does, incredibly handsome features supporting great physical charisma – Brandon’s addiction to getting off is heavy, intense and unforgiving. He’s the kind of guy who orders a prostitute the moment the girl he’s just laid has left, and whacks off while he waits for her to arrive.
Any and every compulsion you’ve had can be recognised in Brandon’s behaviour, which, like cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, food and “recreational” drugs, can seem harmless – and an enormous amount of fun – before the grim relentlessness of the thing kicks in: when it just won’t take a break, you don’t get a break, and when you become a slave to something fun, you’re still a slave. It would be easy to fob off Brandon’s particular addiction – “I’d rather be addicted to sex than crack!” – until you see this film, which reminds us of the dangers – and potential hell – of any of them. Addiction’s devil is addiction itself.
Carey Mulligan, traipsing into the film as Brandon’s sister and upsetting his finely constructed, “functioning addict” lifestyle, proves yet again to be just… well, along with Michelle Williams, just the best, most exciting younger screen actress currently busying herself with the world’s great directors. Every second of every moment of her performance is simultaneously so carefully calibrated and yet so freshly spontaneous, you can only say about the Oscar Nominations (for Best Supporting Actress) this year: not being nominated, she was – well and truly – robbed. I can’t quite come to terms with her talent; it’s a little beyond reach.
Fassbender’s role is much larger than Mulligan’s – he’s in every scene; the film is resolutely about Brandon – and his performance is no less perfect, even as it is far less showy. It’s not a heavy-dialogue film, and Fassbender’s face has to do much of the work in silence, whether he’s aggressively staring down a potential lay on the subway, lying spent after a sexual encounter, or – in the film’s most devastating scene – listening to his sister sing. (I have no doubt this scene was shot with two cameras, one on her and one on him, simultaneously, and when you see it you’ll see what I mean: the intercutting of the two is so sublimely perfect that the take used seemingly has to be the same for both actors).
Of course, there are also a lot of shots of Brandon’s face while he’s having sex. The exclusion of Fassbender from the Best Actor Oscar nominations this year may have something to do with the intensity of these long-held moments: “Is that acting, or are we just watching a guy getting off?” Given the intimate relationship between McQueen and Fassbender – the trust that I’m sure the two share – it would not surprise me that, in closed set conditions, Fassbender was experiencing a close simulation of what Brandon was in these scenes – but still, we are undeniably watching Brandon’s experiences in these amazingly intimate moments – a character’s experiences – and, whether or not Fassbender was being stimulated to orgasm on-set or not, Brandon’s orgasmic expressions – which become increasingly despairing – are no less interpretive than Jean Dujardin’s expressions of joy or sorrow in The Artist. These actors, in very different ways, are using their silent faces to tell a very heartfelt story.
It is hard not to use an excess of superlatives for Shame, and it is impossible to avoid the chestnut “it won’t be for everybody”. It’s dark, even brutal, and it makes you examine parts of your own psyche that you might not love to dwell on. Needless to say, it also features a lot of semi-explicit sex. McQueen also favours long takes and lingering close-ups, so if you like your addiction dramas told apace, you may want to rent Requiem For a Dream instead. The fact that it’s not for everybody is reflected in its Oscar nominations: none. But for my mind, it’s something of a masterpiece, and, as tough as it is, demands to be seen, and on the big screen, where Brandon’s self-imposed isolation in the beautifully shot, bustling Manhattan is augmented by an operatic score that at times is as massive, overwhelming and domineering as addiction itself.
CHRONICLE *** (out of five)
A film I literally had no knowledge of until it came out worldwide last week, the “found-footage” thriller Chronicle is surprisingly fresh and original. Its basic premise is so good that it’s surprising that it hasn’t really been done before: what if three teenagers inherited awesome super-powers… and then, rather than fight crime or get rich, they used them for the mundane concerns of skipping stones, impressing girls and getting even with bullies. It’s a witty conceit, which is at its best in the second act, post-power inheritance and pre-requisite conflict and resolution. But since the whole thing is only eighty-four minutes, it never has time to run out of steam or lose our interest. Debut feature director Josh Trank, all of twenty-six years old, came up with the story with fellow youngster (and screenwriter) Max Landis, son of John, and while the enterprise has the whiff of second-generation Hollywood insiders making a calling-card film for privileged entry into the studio system, there is no denying its originality, commitment, and sheer entertainment value. Watch unknown Dane DeHaan, as the most troubled of the three superteens, quickly become the next big thing.