Saturday, January 7, 2012

Useless "art" -- Steve McQueen's SHAME shows Fassbender & Mulligan to little effect

You may want to steal the first shot from SHAME -- the follow-up film to Steve McQueen's impressive debut, Hunger -- and hang it on your wall in pride of place. It's that close to perfect. Simple, as so many near-perfect things are, it's just a shot of Michael Fassbender between the sheets, his pale, slightly pink skin stark against the monochromatic gray-green of the bedclothes. But the composition, the cropping -- literally everything that goes into art and photography -- simply nails you. Then the movie begins, and that, you soon discover, was pretty much it.

With Hunger, McQueen, shown at right, used his photographic art to tell the story of Bobby Sands (Fassbender again), the IRA and the hunger strike that eventually took the rebel's life. It was a grueling movie, and a gorgeous one. Sometimes a little too gorgeous: a shit-scrawled wall was probably never meant to look like a work of art. With Shame, this director seems less concerned with making every frame artful-to-the-max. But, whether due to the constraints of the "story" (such as it is), he has also neglected to make it much of anything else.

Fassbender, above, whom I have never seen give anything less that an excellent performance -- until now -- plays a sex addict named Brandon, whose sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, below) arrives unexpectedly and asks to stay with him. I would call Sissy his "estranged" sister, except that Brandon appears to be estranged from everything and everyone, except the call of his needy prick.

Sissy's being around makes our guy increasingly uncomfortable. But then so does everything else: his boss, his co-workers, even the many hits with whom he has sex. That's it for the movie's plot (until heavy-duty melodrama sets in and we get an embarrassing mea culpa scene in the rain and mud), and there is even less characterization. This emptiness of character occurs despite performances from literally everyone that -- in another movie in which the director and his writer (The Iron Lady's Abi Morgan, with the help of Mr. McQueen) had endowed their cast with anything approaching complex characters -- would have had us at "hello."

This film is one lengthy goodbye, and as the never-explained negatives pile up, we can't wait to see the thing end (its 101 minutes begin to see like hours). I am more than willing to believe that sex addicts, like most addicts of any kind, are never really having much fun. But you can't build a scenario around sex-addiction as your main character's sole feature -- even with an actor as gorgeous of face and body as Mr. Fassbender, who unveils both, from front and rear, and proves engaging and beautiful from all angles. There is one incredible shot of him -- from the rear, standing above a toilet with his legs slightly spread -- in which his body makes a perfect "V" on top and then a perfect inverted "V" from the waist down. (Although we were told that his full-frontal shots were quite something, as well, the movie proves a cheat on this score, as the actor's seemingly ample package is mostly shown in shadow. (Perhaps, for the U.S. theatrical run, the movie was trimmed slightly?)

Ms Mulligan gets her time in the full-frontal sun, too, but she really shines brightest during her very odd gig, singing in a restaurant (or it it a night club?) in which she warbles, above, in a reedy, faint but lovely voice, Kander & Ebb's New York, New York as though it were a dirge.  And damned if the song doesn't work like that -- beautifully, too.

Otherwise the movie itself is a dirge, a deadly one in which, for all his artful framing and muted color palettte, McQueen has nothing to say except embarrassing cliché.  Hints (if they are even meant as that) to various meanings abound at every possibility from the incest taboo to closeted homosexuality to intimacy inability. But when anything and everything is possible, nothing much matters.  

Shame, from Fox Searchlight, is currently playing around most big cities, at various venues, hoping to pick up some Academy nomina-tions. (Good luck.) Click here to find those venues nearest you.

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