Certified Copy wasn’t my first Abbas Kiarostami film, but in English something changes. The characters’ words have room to play with the images; the words don’t seem so separate spoken as they do in subtitles. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Godard films have felt sometimes cold to me. But Kiarostami’s film brought mystery back to philosophical discourse, and by Heaven I wish more English-language films would attempt something similar. In the film, a French antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) joins British writer James Miller (William Shimell) for a trip out to the Tuscan countryside, where they discuss Miller’s newest book on art, “Certified Copy,” which suggests that reproductions are in essence the same as originals when no one can tell the difference. As the film progresses, Miller and the antiques dealer begin to pretend to be husband and wife, until by the end their masquerade (or apparent reality) has become so lifelike that one wonders if they were husband and wife all along. I saw the film with an audience of mostly elderly men and women, and afterward a theater-wide discussion was held. And I don’t know if it had something to do with the age of the audience, but I was struck by the deep concern in the voices of those that spoke about whether they believed the couple in the film was married or pretending, or somehow both. That kind of curiosity and discourse and amazement deserves respect and admiration; it is a phenomenal film. Most compelling were the infinitesimal moments of pure existence between Shimell and Binoche. After all, they play characters pretending to be husband and wife—in sublime moments one wonders if even the actors playing actors are not truly married in that moment. How far can we take our ability to deceive ourselves?
It might seem pretentious to call managing a baseball team an art form, but I don’t think so. Moneyball, as much as Bennett Miller’s first two features, Capote (2005) and The Cruise (1997), delves into the pleasurable agony of the artist’s journey. How do you create a winning baseball team with a losing budget? “It’s a process, it’s a process, it’s a process,” is the answer from Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), who emerges from his troubling second act like a guru from beyond the dead. And Beane’s Tiresias is Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), the young assistant GM he hires to help revolutionize a sinking team and possibly major league baseball—alright so that was pretentious. Perhaps because I am a writer in an industry that feeds on image, that mires in bullshit because it is scared to take risks, that vainly attempts to worship the fickle gods of popularity—I am of course speaking of the film industry—I found special admiration for the doubts and the courage of Billy Beane. But whatever the reasons for my admiration, I was moved. And I cannot say that rarely enough. But more than that, I was reassured. I was reassured in the faith that the rarest and finest of artists share, a shibboleth by which they catch glints in each other’s eyes, a belief that whatever the outcome of our endeavors, art is a process, a process, a process. Moneyball draws strength from patience, refusing to hide the fact that all things take time, that our lives are not paced according to a script, that instead we linger in and live with uncertainties all our lives. We are, for all our technological refinements and ambitions, a race that must wait, because we have the capacity to look so far ahead. And for his World Series win at least, Beane is still waiting. Even so, “how can you not be romantic about baseball?”
Shame doesn’t hide; it doesn’t explain, it doesn’t judge or apologize, and it doesn’t waste any time. It watches and listens, holding to its protagonist Brandon (Michael Fassbender) for better and for worse. Brandon is a businessman and sex addict living in New York, where his good looks and apparent wealth have only allowed his addiction to take over his life and cripple his ability to form meaningful relationships. When his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up at his apartment and asks to stay, her presence upsets his compulsive routine and the intimacy problems they allowed him to bottle. We don’t hear much about Brandon’s past, because pop psychology flashbacks don’t explain so much as apologize, and McQueen has too much respect for his characters to allow them to be reduced to determinist emblems of suffering. Shame makes no bones about the fact that Brandon has the choice and the power to change, but the filmmakers had the guts to stick by Brandon without a condescending stacked deck through what may be one of the most difficult tests of will a person can face. Fassbender and Mulligan electrify the screen, and McQueen’s restrained eye gives them room and time to breathe. As the film progresses, as Brandon’s attempts at intimacy fail, his quiet desperation explodes, culminating in one of the most sublime and terrible facial expressions of torment that film has ever seen. It is unfortunately all too predictable that so many critics have wailed that Brandon seems to be made to suffer, that he seems to be punished, but Shame is too honest and courageous a film to hide the simple fact that addicts do suffer, suffer beyond our comprehension, and that when compulsion destroys your life and the lives of those closest to you, there’s no clean break and no guarantee of happiness. There’s just a hospital room and a lot of uncertainty, and maybe—maybe—a faint glimmer of hope.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the only film on the list that seems to end with a definitive answer. The protagonist George Smiley (Gary Oldman) gets his man, the elusive mole within MI-6. And yet the film covers much the same ground as the other four, luxuriating in mystery and doubt. Tinker Tailor is a film, like Moneyball, about the process, in this case the process of reducing possibilities until there’s only one left. But Smiley’s investigation into the dealings of his fellow spies involves at the same time a journey of self-discovery, in which every outward revelation comes at the price of an admission of fault in his own history. Smiley may not be the perfect spy, but for the oldest agent in the Circus, he seems the most eager to learn. And by far the most patient. Smiley waits and he listens; Tinker Tailor is a film in which fragments of the past are cobbled together into a portrait of stories told by many voices, and Smiley is the perfect audience, drawing connections but never letting assumptions blind him to new discoveries. For all his cunning and intelligence, Smiley is a man who wins out over his foes because he understands the values of improvisation. I could not and would not attempt to recount to you the twists and turns of plotting and revelation that guide the audience and Smiley through the maze that is Tinker Tailor, but suffice to say they are thrilling. If Shame is a film about the agony of transformation, Moneyball about the doubts and Certified Copy about authenticity, Tinker Tailor is a film about the fascination and the pleasure.
The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life tells the story of Jack (Sean Penn), a man who looks back into the past and to his childhood in Texas to try to reconcile the warring philosophies of Grace and Nature with which he was raised. What are Grace and Nature?
"Grace doesn’t try to please itself, accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked, accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself, get others to please it, too. Likes to Lord it over them, to have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy, when all the world is shining around it and love is smiling through all things."
In childhood, Jack (Hunter McCracken) finds his mother (Jessica Chastain) an exemplar of Grace and his father (Brad Pitt) a representation of Nature, but Malick has too probing a heart to allow them to fit neatly into their respective philosophies. Malick’s characters and conflicts are in the end irreconcilable, and his films dive eagerly into the intangible and inexplicable. In the first half of The Tree of Life, Malick cuts back to the beginnings of time to explore the birth of the universe and the history of our galaxy, and then of our world and then of life itself. Malick’s creation myth startles but engages, and even though it is strange, it is honest. It is the only sequence in film I can think of devoid of humanity and yet tender. Even stories about animals and dots and lines project humanity onto the non-human. Malick makes a character of the earth, a character without consciousness, a conflict of the forces of nature and the story of the world itself. In gradually smaller realms, Malick draws out the uneasy dance between destruction and creation that forms all things of beauty. Out of the clash between the vast gulf of space and kinetic force of matter forms the universe. And out of the currents of gravity and the cooling sculptor time forms the earth. And out of the rush of water and the static of earth forms the first tastes of life—ever, as far as we’re concerned. Out of the symbiosis of organic life and the competition of survival forms a complex ecosystem and the wondrous organisms we know as animals today. And from the mother and father forms Jack, who grows to find within himself the same the wars and attractions that shape the universe. Malick’s god in The Tree of Life is not a presence but a question, an absence and a paradox which makes the beauties of our galaxy and history signs of endless mystery and magic. And the sequence following, which recounts Jack’s infancy and growth to pre-adolescence, has quickly become one of my favorites in all cinema. The Tree of Life is the favorite of my favorites.
Director Tomas Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, aided by le Carré’s game-changing spy novel, manage to create an extraordinarily contained and wholly foreign universe of intrigue, deception, and obsessive investigation.
With John Hurt’s calloused Control heading the solipsistic network of British intelligence, the various supporting players on MI-6’s chess board (the greatest ensemble cast of the year) attempt to outwit and out-maneuver the Russians in the early 1970s. But Control’s tickling sense that a mole may have burrowed into MI-6 to leak intelligence back to the Russians opens up the terrifying possibility that the British Intelligence community may be at war with itself. When an attempt to smoke out the mole goes bad, Control and his right-hand man George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are pushed into retirement. The aged Control dies—the quick death of unemployment—but an agent named Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) alleges that there is in fact a Russian mole within MI-6. Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) a civil servant in charge of intelligence, secretly pulls Smiley out of retirement so that he can investigate the matter. And thus Smiley’s quest begins.
I haven’t read the book, and the labyrinthine plot confused me at times (don’t worry: if you’re actually willing to employ some thought once the final credits roll, any lingering mysteries should clear up), but le Carré’s web of espionage mostly ensnared my imagination so that I could not look away, lest I miss a clue. Hints and details are dropped here and there so that throughout the film and right up to the end, no one, even Smiley at times it seems, is beyond suspicion.
Helmed by Oldman’s exceptional performance, this suspense odyssey peers as much into the depths of Smiley as it does into the intricacies of MI-6. Smiley is the quintessential British spy: restrained, polite, inscrutable, and surging underneath with miraculously contained fears and doubts. In a somewhat drunken moment of release, Smiley recounts his first and last encounter with the Russian spy genius Karla to his protege Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch). Smiley suggested to Karla that spies make it their business to look for the flaws in one another’s systems. And the flaws are always human. A flaw in the agency is always a flaw in the spy, which means that defending the agency requries finding the flaws in oneself. Ultimately, I think, Tinker is a story of self-discovery, of self-improvement. Smiley, through rigorous examination, creates the spy he feels he needs to be to fight off Karla. And in the end, when the flaw has been identified and the malign tumor has been cut away, both Smiley and MI-6 are at home within themselves, if battered and worn.
And while Alfredson makes no bones about the fact that Smiley knows more than the audience—I found a more suitable representative of the audience in the curious Peter Guillam—what makes Tinker's investigation brilliant is the clear sense that Smiley may be making it up as he goes along, that despite his suspicions, he does not know for a fact who the mole really is until the final moments. Despite his genius—because of his genius, Smiley luxuriates in uncertainties. His patience and restraint, his oblique approach to an ever-shifting opponent, allow him to sit back and watch as his resistors and enemies fall away, as emotions or pride or impatience cloud their judgment. And at just the right moment, he topples them with the slightest gesture. Incredible.
Colin Firth seeps into the sepia with a glowing supporting role as the spy Bill Haydon. Benedict Cumberbatch is brilliantly boyish as the sneaky office spy Peter Guillam, and Ciaran Hinds as the spy Roy Bland manages with wry little smiles and almost no dialogue to convey world-weary depths of deception and intelligence. Tom Hardy’s Ricki Tarr somehow combines instinctual investigative genius with a pitiable naivete, and Mark Strong’s Jim Prideaux provides a passionate humanity to the story, reflecting back on all the other characters so that their own human foibles and poignancies blossom like a Chinese Water Flower under his influence. And that is another of the miraculous things about Tinker, that despite its intensely complicated twists and turns, it flows with complex humanity and all-too-human lives. This is the film that Inception could only wish to be.
Tinker closes with one of the year’s great M.O.S. sequences, with Julio Iglesias’ funky rendition of “La Mer” evoking the early 1970s, melancholy, joyous resolution, and hinting through its lyrics at the intricate espionage chess game that will follow between Smiley and his Russian rival “beyond the sea,” Karla. I can only hope that Alfredson, Oldman, and their merry band of spies will take up the story in a sequel adaptation of The Honourable Schoolboy, Le Carré’s next in the Smiley-Karla saga.
Here’s a place to take a look at some best-of lists and various end of the year awards. I’ll add more as I see them released.
Slant Magazine’s Top 25 of the Year
Individual Slant Critics (plus numbers 26-50)
The Onion AV Club
Time Out : New York
New York Magazine
Boston Society of Film Critics
The New York Times
Cahiers du Cinema
San Francisco Film Circle
New York Film Critics Online
The New Yorker/Richard Brody
For my money, these critics have made many baffling, esoteric choices with scantier explanation than a twitter post, and top ten lists are generally useless when written within a decade of their films’ release but… they’re addictive, I can’t help reading them.
I have not seen nearly enough of these movies, but right now I’m feeling Ebert and I don’t like it. My thumbs are up against their will!
I recently (like, a few hours ago) wrote a response to some of the vitriolic reactions to Shame I’ve seen about the web, defending the film, and within minutes had my defense reacted to thusly. Wronglikeright quotes my final paragraph, which is in fact different from what is in my review because within minutes of posting it I revised it to make it clearer—to give you a sense of how incensed this film and its admirers seem to be making people. It’s not a brilliant conclusion (it’s pretty fucking late, after all, and my writing chops aren’t at their finest), but I don’t think it deserves the hacking or misinterpretation it received And then my defense of Shame is discussed at length with various little mispresentations of my arguments. Because it’s late and I’m tired, I’ve taken the bait and written a response. There are SPOILERS in these woods so avoid at all costs if you haven’t seen the film or if you have free time and want to save yourself…
In the end, what convinces me most that Shame is an exceptional film is that its greatness seems more likely, doesn’t it? Who’s more convincing: a minority of critics who viscerally despise the film for what they claim it is trying to do, or a majority of critics who admire the film for the actual experience it created for them. Did I become engrossed in this film where so many others fail because I am weak prey for pretension and melodrama, even though I make a point of noticing these weaknesses in films? Or were the critics who railed against the film closing their eyes to an uncomfortable subject and exceptionally courageous risks? Which is more likely?
What a trite, condescending argument that says absolutely nothing about the movie. You realize that your final paragraph essentially boils down to, “more people liked it than didn’t like it, so clearly all the graphic sex must have turned some narrow-minded people off”?
No, I don’t think the paragraph does boil down to that. I wasn’t saying that it’s more likely that Shame is great solely because a majority of critics have given it great praise, although, with all due respect, that’s probably a sign of something. What I was also saying is that the few critics who deride the film do so on the basis of what they claim McQueen was trying to do, while most of the critics who praise the film base their admiration on their unfiltered experience of the film. A critic doesn’t have a good reason to fake a moving experience. But it does seem more likely—I really think it does—that a critic would take a viscerally unpleasant or off-putting experience and misread that as some supernatural insight into the intentions of the director, against all logic. McQueen has made very clear in his interviews that he doesn’t look down on Brandon, that he considers sex addiction to be a serious illness that should be treated with empathy rather than scorn, but critics insist on claiming he’s building a morality tale about debauchery because it’s a convenient way to dismiss the risks the film takes.
“Its greatness seems more likely?” That’s how we’re judging films these days? I can hear Pauline Kael spinning so hard she’s creating a tornado.
If Kael is your standard for film criticism, we’ve got bigger problems.
Do you really think Shame made me feel “uncomfortable” to the point where I’d need to “close my eyes?” I wish! Uncomfortable would have been a start! It would have been something at least. And what is the “actual experience’ Shame created for the critics that liked it? Did my negative experience not “actually” happen? Oh right, it didn’t, because I was “closing my eyes” while watching it. Please.
When I said critics closed their eyes to the film, it seemed pretty clear I was speaking metaphorically. Shame clearly made you feel uncomfortable. I don’t believe that’s because of the explicit sex; that’s not what I intended to imply by invoking the film’s “uncomfortable subject matter,” which is addiction and not sex. If anything, Shame may have made you feel uncomfortable simply because, as you said, you didn’t get anything out of it. But if Shame really just made you feel nothing, if you were clamoring for any sort of reaction, then why go so nuts in attacking the film? Why not just admit that it wasn’t for you and leave it at that? But critics aren’t leaving it at that. Instead, they’re making broad judgment calls about so-called “art films,” about McQueen’s intentions, and about what should or shouldn’t be taken seriously. So the film meant nothing to you. But from where then do you feel you should insist that Shame can’t possibly have real meaning for someone else? Why not just admit that a film that impacts one person doesn’t impact another? When I say you’re closing your eyes, I mean that you’re taking your lackluster response to the very first viewing of a difficult film as the cue not only to smash the film and call it false, but claim to know the thought process of the artists involved and the false admiration of the people who enjoyed the film.
Since you praise the movie for its courageous risks, might I ask you what they are? What is exactly so risky about anything in Shame? The performances? The story? The subject matter? You realize that sex addiction has been covered in other films, some of them far more engrossing than Shame on every level, and with far more insight, thoughtfulness and maturity.
Name those films; I’d like to see them. And to reduce Shame to “that film about sex addiction” is insulting. To answer your questions: yes, Shame is risky because of the performances: the actors clearly gave everything they had in this film, and it’s not just because of the nudity or the sex scenes. Fassbender, Mulligan, and everyone in the film repeatedly put themselves in emotionally painful, vulnerable, and compromising places to give the audience a shred of truth and that kind of dedication deserves commendation. Absolutely. I don’t think I could do that. I leave up to you to decide whether you could. The subject matter? Yes! Absolutely! Frankly, I don’t know what films you’re watching. I’ve seen a lot of movies about people who enjoy meaningless sex, but this is the first film I’ve seen about sex as an addiction, and McQueen’s willingness to show everything, to take an NC-17 rating when most films cut to the fucking blowing curtains in the window just to get a teen audience, is absolutely to be admired. And why do you mention insight, thoughtfulness, and maturity when it’s so clear you didn’t even spend ten minutes giving your opinion of the film another shot. Have you tried to watch it again? Just tried? I’m begging you now, as a fan of film, just in the hope you might catch some of the beauty I saw in the film, that you’ll try to watch it again.
You praise the movie for its ambiguity, but I ask you, at one point does ambiguity stop serving the story and just become something of a lazy way out? I don’t need all the answers explained to me, but I’d like to know something about the characters.
No, I didn’t praise the movie for that. I said that ambiguity isn’t necessarily grounds for condemnation. Employing ambiguity in a film isn’t something to just automatically praise either, and yes, it can be lazy, but I don’t see how that applies here. What sort of risk did McQueen avoid by not making the characters’ pasts explicit? Critics who mentioned the ambiguity simply said the film was ambiguous and seemed annoyed by that very fact, which annoyed me in turn.
What do we know about Brandon? One, he’s a sex addict living in New York. Two, he has a job (although we don’t even know what it entails) that allows him to leave whenever he wants and show up late. Three, he has a sister and they shared a troubling upbringing. That’s it. I don’t need to know the exact relationship Brandon and Sissy share, but I’d like to know enough to try and figure something out or make a hypothesis. You dare compare this movie with Jazz? Good Jazz music fills in entire landscapes with beautiful arrangement’s that stretch listeners imagination all over the place, in every conceivable direction. Shame is a single note played over and over again, never daring to even strike a chord.
And which note is that? You’ve stretched musical metaphor to the breaking point, I’m afraid, so that I don’t quite know how to respond. By notes do you mean themes then? Shame explores various themes, from addiction to dysfunctional familial relationships to worker-boss tensions to suicide and beyond. Do you mean tone? The film entertains hope, despair, fury, melancholy, hope, and even fucking whimsy. “How dare I compare the film to jazz?” Christ, don’t be so dramatic. And what more do you need to know about Brandon and his sister. And you already do have enough to form a “hypothesis,” which you so freely did in your review when you suggested the siblings might have been incestuous. I happen to believe they simply might have been sexually abused. Critics are hypothesizing away, and I don’t see how that’s a terrible thing. And he can’t show up late whenever he wants. He gets slapped on the wrist for it by his boss in a way that seems polite but is clearly strained and impatient. His world is unravelling during the course of the film and it is beginning to affect his career.
You say that the ending isn’t a descent…
No I didn’t. The ending is definitely a descent. I said Brandon’s visit to a gay night club isn’t a “low point.”
…and that McQueen doesn’t moralize, never dares to judge his characters. That might be true to a certain extent, but that makes the entire film even more superfluous. If people are reading the movie as Brandon’s decent and the cost of that decent (Sissy’s suicide attempt) than it’s probably because without reading it that way there’s even less to think about and analyze. And I feel like the blood-soaked ending, complete with Fassbender’s anguished, muted howling is the precise definition of moralizing. How can it be read otherwise? You’re telling me that the fake-out train suicide isn’t supposed to extract guilt from Brnadon, punish him for his sins? Then why does he run like hell to his apartment, only to find Sissy bleeding to death?
Because she tried to kill herself. Why does it have to be more complicated than that?Brandon encountered the logical consequences of his addiction and his unwillingness to open himself to his troubled sister, but that doesn’t mean the ending is moralizing. It just means the ending is logical. Brandon isn’t “paying for his sins,” because saying he has “sins” to begin with is already putting yourself in a moralizing position. I don’t see how it makes sense to assume McQueen wrote that scene to ‘punish’ Brandon for his sins. It’s not a film about what Brandon should or shouldn’t be doing; it’s a film about the choices Brandon has. I think one key difference here is that your argument about McQueen’s moralizing assumes Brandon chose to become an addict, and I don’t think he did. This is not about a man who chose a destructive lifestyle and pays for it. This is about a sick man trying to overcome an illness that is killing him and the people around him. And in that sense Sissy’s suicide attempt is a provocation to Brandon to face that illness, not a moral punishment.
And the ending really isn’t all that ambiguous. McQueen playfully sets up his dominoes to fall all over again with the final sequence, and the tree-ring like cut-marks on Sissy’s arm suggest that the ending isn’t really all that ambiguous at all. Brandon is going to keep doing what he does, and so is Sissy.
Well that’s one interpretation, but many people I know who’ve seen the film don’t think that Brandon takes the bait at the end. And again, the fact that Sissy used to cut herself doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll try to kill herself again, especially if Brandon begins to open up.
But so what? Tell me why that’s a compelling film? We know they’ll keep behaving the exact same way, we just can’t, for some unknown reason, begin to know why.
Again, you’re assuming your interpretation of the ending is correct when there are actually various valid opinions. As to why precisely the film is compelling, I don’t pretend to know the complete answer, and that’s the difference here between our arguments—I don’t pretend to know. But what I do know is that I was compelled, and I feel I’ve outlined at least a few of the reasons in my review and here.
Explain to me why that’s risky? And tell me why it couldn’t have been done a thousand times better, or more compelling, or at least more visually interesting? I just don’t get it.
That’s clear. Again, I can’t explain it all to you, because I don’t know. And anyone who claims they can explain it all is probably full of it. Of course the film could have been done better! Even the greatest masterpieces have imperfections.
I expected more from McQueen and I’m upset not because of the subject matter but because of the empty shell of a movie I sat through today from film makers that I know can do better. I’m glad the movie worked for you, but please don’t assume that anyone with a problem with it is an ignorant fool with a stick up their ass when it comes to sex. That’s as lazy of an argument as Shame is a film.
Right, I never said you or other critics didn’t like the film because of the explicit sex. That’s not at all what I meant when I said critics closed their eyes to the film and its risks. The “uncomfortable subject matter” critics closed their eyes to is addiction and Brandon’s struggle to feel, not sex. And that was part of my whole point in the review. Many of the critics who decried the film seemed to be saying the film was all about sex, when sex is really secondary to Brandon’s compulsion and emotional avoidance. What happened was that you read something into my review because that’s what occurred to you first and you followed that bias with such self-perpetuating confidence that it led you to make a hasty value judgment and misread most of my review. And that’s what I’m saying happened to most critics with Shame. I never said anything about “everyone” who disliked the film being a fool so, again, stop taking this into dramatic overdrive. I don’t think you’re an ignorant fool and never said so; I just think you’re arrogant and a bit irresponsible to assume that your empty experience of the film gives you the right to condemn the film and the filmmakers personally as frauds when maybe the truth is the film just wasn’t meaningful to you.
Seems like the people who dislike Shame are viscerally opposed to it, and I for one am confused. Then again, I’m biased. I’ve seen it three times, and it’s in the running for my favorite film of the year, along with The Tree of Life. As far as McQueen goes, I believe Shame is a more mature effort and a more accomplished film than his brilliant debut Hunger.
A few critics have complained that McQueen patronizes his audience with a morality tale about debauchery and indulgence. For some reason, they don’t grasp the concept of sex addiction, which isn’t about loving sex too much, in the same way that alcoholism isn’t really about loving alcohol too much. Anyone who believes Brandon is at any point “indulging” or “debauching” clearly hasn’t seen the film. Not really seen it. There’s no indulgence here. Brandon’s an addict. He has sex compulsively, not because he wants to. And if you don’t believe there’s a difference, you probably won’t like Shame.
What makes the film brilliant is precisely what some critics have complained about to the contrary: McQueen does everything but moralize. He doesn’t judge Brandon at all, and neither does Fassbender. As with Hunger, Shame's story is exceptionally simple but filled with resonance and complexity (minor spoilers ahead, folks). Fassbender plays New York sex addict Brandon, an attractive man with a high-end job whose success has only served to make his addiction easier to feed, so that the need for sexual release governs practically his whole life. Sissy, Brandon's sister, appears at his apartment in need of a place to crash for a few days and Brandon's carefully composed addiction-feeding world begins to crumble. When Sissy discovers Brandon's sexual dysfunction and Brandon's boss finds massive amounts of porn on Brandon's hard drive at work, nearly exposing him, Brandon desperately tries to strike up a healthy romantic relationship with a coworker named Marianne, but finds himself unable, both physically and emotionally, to play the normal lover. Brandon's troubles are complicated by the fact that Sissy seems to be resurfacing troubling memories from their childhood and emotions that Brandon has fought hard to suppress. As his addiction spirals into overdrive, Brandon comes face to face with the terrible consequences of giving in to his compulsions.
McQueen and Fassbender spent vast resources researching the topic, going so far as to move the setting of the film from London to New York simply because London sex addicts were generally unwilling to relate their experiences with sex addiction. The film deals with a severe illness that is not often discussed and often scoffed at, so that many of the extremities of Brandon’s addiction seem forced or implausible but come out of very real experiences. McQueen and Fassbender set out from the start to explore, to understand, and to empathize, not to judge. Brandon is presented as a man in pain, a man fighting to save himself against immeasurable odds, and so the idea that he’s looked down upon or employed as the principal in some sort of morality play is, as mentioned, baffling to me.
Similarly baffling is the common complaint that Mulligan doesn’t actually sing that well in her featured vocal performance. This is one of those frustratingly blind criticisms that comes from the same tendency that criticized Kubrick for not making his orgies “sexy” in Eyes Wide Shut. Mulligan’s not meant to be a world-class singer—why would she be staying in Brandon’s apartment without a place of her own? Nor is her vocal performance meant to be smooth and perfectly toned. It’s an emotional plea from Sissy to the world and the power is in the moments she slips out of key. Do critics honestly believe, with the vast array of tone correctors that have been aiding poor singers for decades, that McQueen wouldn’t have made her performance perfect if that’s what he wanted to do? If you haven’t seen the film, do yourself a favor and watch Shame without trying to figure out what it’s supposed to be. Because if it’s a good film, and Shame is a great film, you’re going to miss everything and come out frustrated by your own preconceptions. And I don’t believe Brandon cries at Sissy’s performance because he’s bowled over by its beauty, or because he and Sissy were incestuous, which seems to me a fairly pedestrian analysis of their sexual relationship. He cries—for one of many reasons—because she’s his sister and she’s suffering a pain that mirrors his own, which is neither pretentious nor mysterious.
Others have whined that the film is dispassionate and calculating, a cold look at a harsh city world that mimics Brandon’s inability to feel. But this too is entirely bewildering to me. The film blazes with pain, anger, and fear. It is white hot with feeling, and I, who am not often emotionally drawn into the films that I see, was so engaged in the last ten minutes that I physically couldn’t sit still. Brandon yearns for human contact even as he builds a bravado facade of manly bachelorhood. Watch his face when Sissy appears suddenly in his apartment: watch as his fear turns to shock then to barely contained glee, and then to fury. Watch when he shuts the bathroom door, and you can catch the faintest hint of a smile on his face, because he knows deep down she’s good for him—there’s nothing forced in the moment. Fassbender’s Acting award in Venice was well-deserved and I would eagerly applaud similar recognition by the Academy. He is a powerhouse in the film. Watch him at his most delicate in his scenes with Nicole Beharie’s Marianne, where he fumbles over normal romantic interaction and nearly melts with hope for a real relationship.
Critics have been so eager to assume that McQueen was trying obfuscate by having Brandon and Sissy be sexually aware of each other, when their relationship would naturally involve a degree of sexual openness if they both encountered abuse in the past, which is strongly suggested but left mostly to the audience’s imagination. But ambiguity isn’t generally “meant” to confuse. Saying McQueen is just dicking around with the audience to fake complexity by not explicitly explaining everything is like saying that jazz is a pretentious art form because not everyone can follow improvisation. Just because a critic doesn’t like not knowing everything doesn’t make ambiguity a bad move. It just means the critic has no patience.
Critics have also been eager to assume that McQueen was trying to show Brandon “hitting his low” when he goes to the gay nightclub, which is insulting at worst and naive at best. The film makes it pretty obvious that Brandon has been in similar situations before, especially since he knows how to recognize the off-the-map sex club in the first place simply by gazing at a man standing outside its secret entrance. Brandon isn’t hitting his low; he’s just getting another fix, which is why he heads next to an apartment complex to have sex with two attractive female prostitutes. If getting a blowjob from a man was so odious to Brandon as to qualify as a “low,” he would have just gone to the prostitutes and skipped the whole gay nightclub affair. And while there is no tangible “point” to the gay nightclub scene, if you must find some sort analytic meaning, consider the fact that it simply demonstrates his compulsion isn’t about sexual pleasure or sensuality as much as it is about release, pure and simple.
What convinces me finally that Shame is an exceptional film is that, based on the kinds of criticism and praise the film has received, its quality seems more likely. Who’s more convincing: a minority of critics who viscerally despise the film for what they claim it is trying to do, or a majority of critics who admire the film for the actual experience it created for them? Did I become engrossed in this film where so many others fail because I am weak prey for pretension and melodrama, even though I am viscerally repelled by these weaknesses in other films? Or were the critics who railed against the film closing their eyes to an uncomfortable subject and exceptionally courageous risks? Which is more likely? Truly?