Hot and Bothered
The hero of “Shame,” Brandon (Michael Fassbender), lives in what you or I would call New York, and what St. Augustine would call a hissing cauldron of lust. Brandon has an office job, but we never learn what it entails; people hold smooth-looking meetings behind glass walls, but “Shame” prefers not to sully its hands with the grease of ordinary labor. The director, Steve McQueen, has his mind on lower things, and they furnish him with all the dirt he needs. Because what propels Brandon—what offers thrust and torque, if not meaning, to his existence—is sex.
What a busy fellow Brandon is. He lives alone, and a quiet night in means hiring a prostitute, or hooking up to a remote mate for a video chat; for want of a partner, he can always beat off in the shower, as if dreaming of cheating on himself. At work, his hard drive is rancid with downloaded filth, something that his boss, David (James Badge Dale), ascribes to a careless intern. When the two men go for a drink, it is the bumptious David who tries to ensnare a lustrous blonde at the bar, but it is Brandon whom she seeks out later that night. They rut against the leaning stanchion of a bridge, with the word “FUCK” helpfully scrawled on the concrete beside them, just in case we thought they were trading stock tips. The whole film is like that, rigorously shorn of randomness; even the graffiti must have its rightful place.
This is no surprise. McQueen, a Brit who attended art schools and worked in visual installation before turning to feature films, was lauded for “Hunger” (2008), and rightly so, although even that movie, about an I.R.A. hunger-striker (also played by Fassbender), was imperilled by the coolness of its own gaze. The wall of a jail cell, smeared with excrement as an act of protest, was filmed with such compositional care that it became, in effect, a work of abstract art, allowing us to forget what it actually was: human waste, applied with human rage, and surely unbearable to the human nose. McQueen could hardly be hipper, yet he remains, to an extent, an old-fashioned aesthete, drawn to extreme behavior in his characters not because of any trials of spirit that they undergo but because he is challenging himself to unleash the wildest material that he, wielding his camera, can then possess and tame.
The result is pure and pitiless, and, in the case of “Shame,” oddly disapproving. The film has an NC-17 rating, and it will prompt the customary gasps of outrage, but no viewer, however prim, could be harsher on the uncontrollable Brandon than the director is. At no point is the philanderer permitted to look as if he might be enjoying himself, and Fassbender, who was, frankly, much sexier and more devilish in “X-Men: First Class,” is required to spend much of his time staring with blank intensity into the middle distance. Whether Brandon is ashamed, as the movie’s title proposes, is open to debate; he looks
merely shattered to me, roped to his own runaway habits, and although he does have one discernible rush of self-loathing, cramming his carnal detritus into garbage sacks, all you can think is, How charmingly retro! A guy who still buys porno magazines! Later, in one tidal wave of a night, he comes on to a woman in a bar, gets hoofed in the face by her boyfriend, swings by a gay club for a brief encounter (any port in a storm), and then rounds off the evening with a nice warm threesome. His companions, in that climactic bout, are played by DeeDee Luxe and Calamity Chang, two names that made me happier than anything else in the film. No such joy for Brandon; while his body is enmeshed with theirs, his face is trapped in a desperate rictus, as if he were nearing the loudest sneeze of his life, and what McQueen treasures here is the sullen aftermath, with the drained lecher sitting and crying beside the rotting piers of a wharf. And that’s what happens to naughty little boys.
There is a plot, of sorts, amid the pulsation. Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a part-time chanteuse and round-the-clock whirligig of neediness, comes unexpectedly to stay. He finds her naked in the shower, thus grazing another taboo. At one point, in a ritzy bar, she unveils the still heart of the film, her face trapped in closeup while she croons “New York, New York,” at a crawling tempo. Mulligan gives it her all, but, as so often in “Shame,” you can’t help considering the context. Would everyone in a New York hot spot go quiet for five minutes in order to listen politely to what is, in essence, a private distress call? McQueen, aided by his screenwriter, Abi Morgan, has stitched together a bespoke idea of the city rather than the place itself, in the same way that he frames erotic pursuit more as a neat conceptual art work than as the farrago of lunging, dithering, yearning, and near-farce in which most of society wallows. To Brandon’s credit, he tries to proceed normally with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a colleague from the office, taking her to dinner and making non-horny conversation, but, when they finally arrive at the boudoir, guess what? He can’t get it up. McQueen might as well have hung a sign around Brandon’s neck that read “Warning: Cannot Mix Emotion and Sex.” If you want to see the same bafflement, vented with ten times the subtlety, check out Warren Beatty, in “Bonnie and Clyde,” slumping away from Faye Dunaway and murmuring, “I told you I warn’t no lover boy.”
Yet, for all this, “Shame” compels attention. Amid its pious devotion to the woebegone, there are scenes that manage to twitch into life and hit a nerve, perhaps because they also bump the funny bone. Take the wordless subway ride, early in the movie, that finds Brandon, impeccably swathed in coat and scarf, sitting diagonally opposite a young woman. To witness the back-and-forth of their flirtation is like watching Nadal versus Federer on clay. Topspin smiles are dinked across the car, lips are slyly moistened, and McQueen even lobs in a late twist, as the woman proves to be wearing not just a kindly smile but a wedding ring—a combination guaranteed to stir our hero’s loins. The entire sequence is perfect, and PG-rated, and if “Shame” had stopped there it would have been a poem. Instead, there is a novel’s worth of grinding still to come, and, by the end, all that I could think of, however respectful of the film’s aplomb, was the brisk advice delivered by the aging Flaubert to his satyr of a protégé, Guy de Maupassant, in 1878: “You complain about fucking being ‘monotonous.’ There’s a very simple remedy: stop doing it.”
Another film, another mirthless panoply of flesh. In “Sleeping Beauty,” the Australian director Julia Leigh tells the tale of Lucy (Emily Browning), a student famished for cash. Usually, she turns tricks to boost her income, picking up men in a bar as if they were litter, but she soon enrolls in a mysterious escort service. Her duties include waitressing, half nude, at dinners arranged by an exclusive club, and later, for a larger fee, taking a sleeping draught and submitting, like a warm corpse, to the attentions, foul and foolish, of old white men.
The politics of “Sleeping Beauty” are not difficult to read; if “Shame” treats the libido as little more than a lonely subset of fluid mechanics, Leigh’s work deconstructs it as a weapon in the armory of patriarchal oppression, and the voyeurs who prey upon Lucy, with hand, tongue, and eye, are themselves repugnant to observe. Then, there are the fripperies; could we please agree to a moratorium on masks, cutaway leather lingerie, and other bondage-flavored evening garb? This kind of thing was about as arousing as a golfer’s knitwear when Kubrick dragged it into “Eyes Wide Shut,” and it still strikes me as the asexual’s idea of what sex is meant to look like—hot, robotic, and vaguely European, as if Victoria’s Secret had been bought out by a company of Freemasons.
So why does “Sleeping Beauty” linger and doze in the mind while “Shame” wanders away? The best answer is Emily Browning. With her skin pallor verging on translucence, and a long, tigerish mane, she could be a Victorian dream of the untouchable, and you can picture Millais and Rossetti dropping their brushes at the sight of her. On the other hand, those parts of “Sleeping Beauty” which release Lucy from her creepy trade reveal her as a regular Aussie: sane, jokey, and easily bored—honest, too, as when she visits a friend who is drinking himself to death and, without ado, pours vodka instead of milk on his cereal. To be at once earthy and ethereal is an uncommon gift. I noticed it, in Browning, when she starred in “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” (2004), as the calmly eccentric Violet Baudelaire. Already, as a teen-ager, she seemed older and wiser than the events unfolding around her, and, likewise, in “Sleeping Beauty,” she impugns the drooling antics of the elderly. They fling her about like a doll, but it is they—all the fantasists who believe that sex makes them grand and sinister, as opposed to ridiculous—who should wake up.