The biggest surprise about Michael Fassbender’s Oscar snub was that anybody was really surprised.
It took Gary Oldman decades to secure his first nod; Fassbender’s flinty, ferocious performance in Shame was always going to be a hard sell, especially against Jean Dujardin’s crowd-pleasing joie de vivre. This was The Artist versus the artist, Fassbender reuniting with Turner Prize winner-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen.
If McQueen’s 2008 debut, Hunger, defined their relationship – stark, uncompromising, raw – Shame perfects it. US distributors Fox Searchlight banked on McQueen’s reputation, attempting to sell the film’s NC-17 certificate as a badge of integrity.
Alas it’s likely conservative Academy voters binned their screeners to escape the film’s uncomfortable truths, just as Fassbender’s alter-ego Brandon dumps his porn stash in a fit of self-loathing. “Titillation wasn’t top of the priority list,” the star confirms on the disc’s main extra, a Q&A.
Instead, Shame is a mature, provocative film about sex that confronts desires seldom admitted in American cinema.
McQueen recalibrates expectations during an intro that functions as an overture, a richly textured video tone-poem he might once have installed in a gallery. Against a nagging metronome and a wash of glacial synth-score, Brandon hires a prostitute, masturbates in the shower, and attempts to seduce a married woman on the subway. At this point, it might be called Addiction, or Desire, or perhaps even Hunger again.
Shame – the theme – only kicks in when Brandon casts wary glances as his porn-filled PC is carted away, or wipes a toilet seat clean before an agitated workplace wank.
Stuck in a rut
The film’s provocative pathology is that, on the surface, Brandon has it all. He’s suave and witty, lives in a designer apartment and curates a cool record collection of ’70s disco and Glenn Gould piano recitals. Yet this absolute gentleman is also a habitual predator, forever zoning in on prospective targets and staying logged on to webcam sex lines.
The constant goad of “24/7 access to excess” (as Fassbender puts it) proves too much; Brandon cannot control those compulsions so he finds it impossible to relinquish the shame he feels.
The thinnest of narrative threads holds out hope of a genuine romance with colleague Marianne (Nicole Beharie), but Brandon cannot square the circle, cueing a downward spiral into increasingly bitter, loveless sex. The nature of Brandon’s troubles is vague; there’s virtually no back-story.
The nearest to exposition comes after sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) crashes back into Brandon’s life unannounced and unappreciated, telling him: “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” That much is obvious when Brandon catches Sissy in the shower and she stands defiantly, unashamedly naked, as expressive as her brother is repressed.
Mulligan instinctively got a tattoo to prove to McQueen she could play it messy; it’s an underwritten part, but Mulligan meets Fassbender head-on, Sissy’s girlish sexuality igniting Brandon’s deep-rooted trauma.
With his characters saying little (and the director absent from the extras), McQueen speaks through long takes. There’s nothing as extreme as Hunger’s 17-minute two-shot, but McQueen keeps rolling to underline the nature of a man running scared – literally, as Brandon jogs through five blocks of traffic to escape his demons.
It’s surely McQueen’s Copacabana moment (see GoodFellas), despite Fassbender modestly claiming that “You just go out and shoot it!”, as if this fusion of character and camera was commonplace.
We’ll take Manhattan
Maybe it is, for McQueen – an equally stunning, intense close-up of Mulligan, crooning a stripped-down ‘New York, New York’, says everything about Sissy’s lost innocence. Planned as a London film, the picture moved to Manhattan only after McQueen and screenwriter Abi Morgan failed to get British sex addicts to open up and had to rely on all-American candour for research.
But Manhattan feels right: the high-rise lifestyle suits Brandon’s cold anonymity, the foreign location highlights his isolation, and – as Morgan’s scalpel-sharp screenplay makes apparent – linguistically, America can’t stop making Freudian slips.
The film throbs with suggestion, from the opening lines (Sissy on voicemail ordering Brandon to “pick up, pick up”) to Brandon being told he’s “fucking nailed it” after workplace success.
Interestingly, the innuendo spills over into the extras, as Fassbender talks of going “the extra length” for McQueen, a director who “squeezes every drop out of you.” He sure did. Fassbender lets it all hang out body and soul, Brandon’s urbane mask slipping into a joyless rictus grin of primal instinct.
Prior to Shame, Fassbender took on iconic characters from literature (Mr Rochester) and pop-culture (Magneto) and made them his own, but Brandon was his own creation from the start.
With two years to prepare after McQueen explained the premise, Fassbender “wanted to make sure that I bring Brandon close to me.” It would be too easy to play “the dude in the rain mac with the sweaty palms,” he points out. “This is a normal person, one of us.”
This is hardly what Oscar voters wanted to hear when Dujardin was miming happier thoughts, but it’s doubtful that Fassbender will be fazed by the slight.
Already joking about career nadir Jonah Hex (“a Criterion Collection film”), Fassbender will get plenty more opportunities to nail it. But please, Academy, don’t make him wait as long as Gary Oldman.