Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Film Review: Shame

The Film Fundi is back. Here's a review she did of Shame, just for you. 

“Art can't fix anything. It can just observe and portray. What's important is that it becomes an object, a thing you can see and talk about and refer to. A film is an object around which you can have a debate, more so than the incident itself. It's someone's view of an incident, an advanced starting point.” --Steve McQueen
Every so often, there are films that come along that make us sit up a bit and for whatever reason, good or bad draw our attention to issues of great importance. Of course, this is not a foreign concept in cinematic history. It seems that almost every subject deemed controversial, whether it is related to the social or political has been explored to some extent in the medium’s history, which has spanned well over 100 years. There are certain subjects, however, which are considered more controversial or taboo than others. More often than not, subject matter in films relating to religion and sex bring about the most concerned voices in audiences. Ironically, these very same films garner the most engagement from audiences, regardless of their controversy.

One of the seminal controversial films in cinematic history (which was less than a minute long) happened to be the first cinematic screen kiss, The Kiss (1896). The Kiss drew its own set of criticism for daring to put such an “inappropriate” act on screen. Tim Dirks, of notes a critic at the time of the film’s release wrote: "The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other's lips was beastly enough in life size on the stage but magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting." All that fuss? Over a kiss? But that was 1896. What is “just a kiss” to us was far more outrageous then. One would like to think that over 100 years later that the cinematic audience all over the world have found some sort of progression. But as time has progressed we haven’t all progressed. Is it coincidence that The Kiss went on to become the Edison Company’s most popular film that year? Probably not. Perhaps one can argue that The Kiss intrigued for a reason. It sparked interest because people were curious, curious of an act that is natural to us.

As much as it seems that we have moved on from the shock horror of the on screen kiss, many have still not warmed up to the fact that full frontal nudity (even with a reason or purpose) or merely for the sake of artistic expression has a place on our screens. As much as the opposing organizations fight it they have to, at some point, confront the fact that sex, sexuality and nudity is here and here to stay. If that painting that shook up South Africa over the last few month is anything to go by, not everyone supports the words ‘art’ and ‘nudity’ in the same sentence. Considering the range of reactions to the painting and the anger that it has inflicted, there certainly is a concern as to whether Shame is ready for a South African audience, or for that matter if a South African audience is ready for Shame.
Shame is delivered to us by the producers of 2011’s best picture Oscar winning film The King’s Speech and the British Film Commission. The film is brought to life by a relatively new talent to the film industry. Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the late The Great Escape Hollywood legend) directed and co-wrote Shame, his second full length feature film. Better known in the fine art world, particularly for his installation pieces, McQueen was awarded the OBE in the 2002 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for his services to the Arts. He also won the Turner Prize in 1999 for his film installation at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. The latter award led to his first full length feature, Hunger about the 1981 IRA Hunger Strike, led by Bobby Sands. While the film was not widely screened, it was highly praised. But Hunger did more than lay down the groundwork for McQueen’s film career; it played a role in introducing us to a talent (that would go on to be noticed and cast by the likes of directors Quentin Tarantino and David Cronenberg), a German-born Irishman, Michael Fassbender.   

Michael Fassbender as Brandon
McQueen and lead actor Fassbender bring to life a story and character whose struggles that many suffer from but many (still) deny exist- sex addiction. While the topic of sex addiction is somewhat of a taboo in many cultures, which even challenge its very possibility, it is a topic that has been bought to head in the last few year and in a very public way. While Hollywood stars’ spouses, like Sandra Bullock’s Jesse James and golfing legend Tiger Woods have cried “sex addiction” as a reason for their discrepancies many have labelled this self diagnosis as a cowardly excuse for their infidelity. Regardless of whether sex addiction “exists” or not, it is something that needs engagement. Perhaps this is what makes McQueen and Fassbender’s collaboration so powerful and effective. Neither are perturbed by the fact that controversy could mar their progression in the all powerful but still somewhat conservative Hollywood (and most audiences viewing the film). They realise the attention this issue needs and are willing to be unpopular for it. It has been said that there is somewhat of a cruel paradox in addiction in that it transforms a source of pleasure into an inescapable, insatiable need.

 Shame begins on what seems like a relatively routine morning. We are introduced to Brandon (supposedly named for Marlon Brando and his performance in the also erotic and controversial Last Tango In Paris (1972), a thirty-something New Yorker with a great job and even better apartment over-looking the city. While Brandon has somewhat of an active social life with his colleagues, behind closed doors he harbours a secret. Brandon is addicted to sex. It is his first and last thought of the day and consumes every thought and activity.  We witness Brandon’s daily life filled with online pornography, anonymous sex and masturbation sessions that come around as often as he does. One might argue up to this point that Brandon is no more than your “average” sexually active middle aged man with a thriving sex life and sexuality. But gradually a downside to this emerges. His attitude towards sex becomes more apparent as we get to know him. For Brandon, sex is cold, clinical and a means to an end. There is little to no emotion attached to the act for him. It seems, to some extent, Brandon is aware of his problem but is so deep and far gone into it that he has very little hope for himself. Brandon’s daily routine is somewhat thrown off when his troubled sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), unexpectedly drops by. We are not told very much about the siblings or their relationship yet there is an unspoken pain between the two that stems from an (unexplained, but presumed) grief stricken childhood. Sissy says, “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place”. While Sissy becomes increasingly co-dependent on her brother, his control over his habit slowly wanes. His problem becomes more evident to him when he meets an attractive co-worker, Marianne (Nicole Beharie) who he starts to have (at least somewhat of) a real emotional connection. As hard as he tries, Brandon can’t perform sexually for her and goes back to what he knows best- sexual satisfaction without emotion or consequence. While Brandon finds comfort in his old ways we begin to wonder how much longer he can keep Sissy from pushing him over the edge and his two worlds from colliding.
Carey Mulligan as Sissy
 McQueen’s choice of title for the film is an interesting one. Is Brandon (a)shame(d) by his actions because of a largely conservative society that looks down on self-pleasure, sex out of wedlock and promiscuity? Is he (a)shame(d) that these acts have taken over his life, prohibiting him from functioning as a “normal” person? Is “Shame” the name of something Brandon does feel, or of something the filmmakers think he should feel? Whatever McQueen’s reasoning, debate is certainly open.  While the film itself has thus far been praised as much as it has been criticized, it is the lead actor, Michael Fassbender’s performances that has both fans and critics of the film talking the loudest and is an aspect to the film that a consensus holds is in every sense of the word, brilliant. If one thing can be said about Michael Fassbender it’s that he is fearless. His all encompassing emotionally riveting yet tragic performance is the hero of Shame

The film leaves us with a sense of cycles repeating. However, we are not certain if this cycle will prove that old habits die hard or if Brandon can overcome his addiction. In this sense, the film will certainly not leave you with a list of answered questions. Then again, why should it? Shame makes no promises at any point in the film to its audiences; instead it looks to us to make our own minds up. The cynics will believe Brandon is too far gone to have any chance of redemption. On the other side the optimists will see a glimmer of hope for Brandon. We are drawn in to a point, but held just far enough to not become emotionally involved. Perhaps this is what makes it difficult, at first sight to engage with Brandon for the audience. But McQueen is all the wiser for this as our lack of attachment somewhat does help us become one of the films characters with their lack of feeling and emotion attached to everything they do. Shame is not a documentary on sex addiction- it is a mere snapshot in to one man’s life and self-destruction. It investigates our habits and in turn our sexual habits as human beings and how our past traumas can affect the person we eventually mould into and our reactions to those around us. One of the most honest and compassionate yet painful films to make its way on screen in recent years, Shame might not change lives, but hopefully to some extent will create and open engagement about sex addiction and how we manage to fall in to our own cycle of hope and shame and if we choose to escape it.

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