Sex, Guilt and Fassbender: Shame

11/23/2011 4:00 AM |

Directed by Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen’s follow-up to the celebrated Hunger is an unintentionally campy Catholic cautionary tale about the pitifulness of a life dedicated solely to earthly pleasures. Make that fleshly pleasures. Wisely, McQueen has again teamed with Michael Fassbender, who plays a Flatiron district-dwelling orgasm addict—a serial masturbator and prowler for pussy. Most reviewers have noted that for all its sex, Shame isn’t sexy. Really? Sure, there’s a tragic orgy soaked in wailing, mournful string music, and the movie climaxes with history’s saddest climax. But even heterosexual men melt for Fassbender. I recently saw him in person and he looked ruddy, diminutive. But the camera adores him—his anguished gazes, his prominent brow—as it has no other actor since Marilyn Monroe. The movie works best as a vicarious thrill: watching Fassbender ply his charm on the movie’s women is a treat, regardless of your sexual orientation.

That he’s also a great actor doesn’t hurt. (Even the back of his head is captivating.) Nor do McQueen’s long takes, which as in Hunger are the kindest gift you can give such a serious actor—and to an audience watching one. (Or, at least two: Carey Mulligan co-stars as his dippy little sister.) Similar to the recent Martha Marcy May Marlene, Shame is virtuosic in form and performance, but the writing’s a joke. Commitment: it’s tough. And those too screwed up to make one, too steeped in the misery of pornography and illicit exhibitionist fucks, are bound to descend a sinful spiral, driving away their loved ones and engaging in homosexual relations. (Seriously, there’s a gay sex-club scene shot like a visit to a special circle of hell.) The movie ends where it began, Fassbender subway-flirting with a married woman, suggesting either he’s in an ineluctable loop or he’s being presented with a chance to escape the cycle. Punishment or potential redemption—whichever way you want to read it, it feels like a product of hysterical Catholic guilt. Or shame.

Opens December 2