SHAME (Steve McQueen, 2011)
A pivotal scene halfway through the film where Michael Fassbender, wearing only a towel screams at Carey Mulligan unlocked the mystery and the central conflict for me. Both actors are so enchanting onscreen you almost forget what the story is about. Then come the strong words.
Most of what transpires in SHAME, director Steve McQueen's (not the famous actor) second film, reuniting him with actor Michael Fassbender are wordless moments, mostly introspection and silent images, and it's a plus for me because less talk onscreen gets me. Do it extensively and I will sleep on it, but do it just enough, especially for a sexually-themed story and you have my attention, in the spirit of the great films by Bertolucci (critics compare SHAME to LAST TANGO IN PARIS).
So what do you do if you're a sex addict who can't get enough sex, and one day your routine gets disrupted so much so you can't get it up anymore? That is what Brandon (Fassbender) has to live with, with the sudden arrival of her estranged sister Sissy (Muliigan). Brandon is, in plain terminology, emasculated by Sissy's presence in her apartment and in her life. The irony and the guilt is grander than the Empire State Building. Being promiscuous herself, Sissy's sexual behavior mirrors Brandon's, and this troubles Brandon because not only are they related by blood, she is his female counterpart. There's so much psychological tension going onscreen that even without dialogue you can feel the radiation as if their chemistry emits toxic material
How exactly would it feel to have a semi-naked gorgeous woman running around your apartment all day, but that which you cannot have sex with? Change the setting to King's Landing and this is automatically incest (sorry to non-fans of GAME OF THRONES) yet in the real world, at least in the majority of everyday setup, a grown man would be emasculated. Then again, it depends on the culture and upbringing.
So what is it that upsets Brandon? His duty to Sissy as a brother, to ensure she doesn't get hurt (which brilliantly reflects how most of Brandon's girls would have felt after sex)? Sissy's disruption of Brandon's routine? Sissy sleeping with Brandon's boss? The fact that Brandon's boss is married? It may be one of these or all. What's clear though is that Brandon's outlook on sex and relationships is shook up, and this concerns him deeply. Human emotions terrify him. Such horror it must have been for these siblings growing up to have arrived at this point in life with such tragedy.
I always say: sex is psychological. If you're going to depict sex onscreen without human psychology, you're either making a comedy, a pornography, or your characters are rabbits. In SHAME, everything has a meaning- Brandon running in the middle of the night across an almost empty street, sex in a hotel room with a see-through window, the obsessive-compulsiveness, and even the blinds in the apartment- they all mean something. In its entirety, the film is so visual and so beautiful a portrait of a man so disfigured and yet so handsome outside that it succeeds in delivering its message across without the need to layer useless subplots or condone/condemn its antihero.