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Shame is the Shadow of Love

I don’t need no lasso
I don’t need no ball and chain
I don’t need anything with you
Such a shame, shame, shame
Shame, shame, shame
Shame is the shadow of love
–PJ Harvey

Steve McQueen’s unflinching look at sexual addiction and what drives it is the subject of this startlingly moving film, which had its premier in Venice but played here in Telluride yesterday.  The film stars Michael Fassbender as a successful but isolated businessman who relies on porn, prostitutes and masturbation in place of real intimacy. He can’t get close to anyone but he can have pseudo closeness.  It’s not all that far from Thomas Haden Church in Sideways, “you don’t understand my plight.”  But in Sideways it was never really examined so closely.  In Shame, the character is running from past emotional damage; he’s doing whatever it takes to rub out whatever that was, driving him deeper into his addiction.

Shame will work better for you if you’ve ever dipped your head in, or had any contact with the kind of high risk behavior that goes with sexual addiction.  Sex addicts know, as with every addiction, you have to keep upping the cost, upping the risk, moving beyond what becomes the new normal.  But even if you aren’t or have never been a sex addict and have only ventured into the world of high risk behavior either online or in real life, you still might be able to understand, if nothing else, his misery.

Fassbender is beyond brilliant in the part.  He digs more deeply into torments he only hints at in A Dangerous Method.  What is remarkable and true about his work here is that his facial expression does not change, particularly, until his inner world starts to expose itself.  That includes how he looks when he looks at porn, how he looks when he has sex with a hooker, or hits on a woman on the subway: he is a predator with a single goal in mind – satisfaction.  His power as this kind of hit man is profoundly felt when he’s spiraling downward and he hits on a woman in a bar.  What he says to her, how he owns her completely by telling her things most people just never hear, asking about her boyfriend, “does he go down on you?  I do that.  I like to do that.” Before long, his unwitting victim is ready to go anywhere with him, do anything for him.  Oh, this part is so easy.  But it’s the other part, it’s the “sex with someone you care about” that is the more difficult.

Carey Mulligan is a key figure but you have to do a little detective work to figure out why – and perhaps, in the end, it is a matter of interpretation.  But her own desperation, similar to her brother’s, leads her to no end of misery.  Mulligan, naked emotionally and physically, is disturbing as the main character’s needy and pathetic sister.  While she might not be a full blown sex addict she is certainly drawn to false intimacy in much the same way.  She’s looking to be rescued, like so many damaged women out there, and you just know it’s never going to end pretty. The relationship between these two hints at something darker.  We are left to make our own assumptions about that.  Is there nothing Mulligan can’t do?  Every performance she turns out is different, but fully realized.  She is already such an accomplished and adept performer at such a young age.

No doubt most of us have either been the perp or the victim in these kinds of scenarios.  When it’s all over with you don’t really feel better because it isn’t the sex part that you remember.  It’s the emotional connection.  Sex without emotion can be satisfying if it’s good enough, dirty enough, subversive enough – but it is so much better when it’s sex with someone you love.  I think this is true of women as with men.  Funnily enough, this is the message of Shame — which doesn’t judge its main character’s “plight” so much as it sympathizes with it: you know that hole can’t be filled so easily.  Addiction is always going to lead, ultimately, to emptiness and dissatisfaction.

The long takes are hard to get used to and are distracting, but there is one sequence in this film that is so otherworldly, so beautifully shot that I think it’s best bit of cinema, just those ten minutes or so, than I’ve seen all year.  No, not everyone is going to “like” this movie.  But those who do will love it.  It’s interesting that it reminded me more of a Cronenberg film than the film Cronenberg brought here himself.   Carey Mulligan once again turns in yet another masterful performance.  She is endlessly surprising in what she turns out.

Of all of the films I’ve seen here, Shame is the one that will probably hover in my psyche for a long time, maybe for the rest of my life.  This is partly because McQueen is arriving at something I’ve not seen addressed in films, not this way.  But also because of how brilliantly the three main forces work together – that’s Fassbender, Carey Mulligan and director McQueen.  Shame is, to my mind, a master work, perhaps even a masterpiece.