Monday, February 20, 2012

Review: Shame: Oblomov as a sex addict

Brandon wakes to the cool light of morning swathed in sheets of such a rarefied blue-grey that their colour must have a name like Murchison. For a long screen minute he gazes into space. He sleeps naked. It's just the cotton and he.

Any teacher of creative writing will tell you about character keynotes: gestures, utterances etc that establish them from the get go. Major Jack Stormbahn enters a debate about the ethics of a surprise attack and barks: "Smoke 'em!" Trudence Farrow fluffs the kind of small decision that will become a life-and-death one later. Brandon stares into the light in front of him without a blink. He is either void of thought or possessed by thoughts that haunt him every second of every day. It's an eerie opening.

He gets up and turns the day's switches on, shower, teeth, dressing, walking around the featureless corner between rooms as his answering machine plays out some pain: another woman has mistaken him for a viable life partner. He listens as though it's the breakfast show.

Work is all open neck shirts and open plan. The boss is a good guy and the colleagues rag each other in such a low key fashion that you know their competition is serious and seething. When you see suits in this office it's clear that they are clients. This is not the generic yuppie stockbrocker firm of this kind of tale. Brandon works at something altogether more intimidating than that. He gets out of the morning meeting, goes to the gents, wipes the immaculately janitored seat and masturbates. Hang on, rewind.

Stuttering through this is a series of snippets of his train ride into town. He sits across from a radiant young beauty and gazes at her. After avoiding it she gives in and gazes back, her smile at the power of this attraction uncontrollable. When the scene spreads out and plays for itself the pair are locked into this wordless seduction. The music is high emotion, sweeping strings in a minor key. It's big enough for a battle scene. But there's something wrong here (see it to find out why). She gets off at the next stop (he is standing close enough behind her for their bodies to touch) and loses him in the throng of the station. He pursues futilely. His self-maintenance in the cubicle tell us how successfully he has cast the incident from his mind.

Back home he opens his front door to expensive prostitutes. His laptop is always on and always connected, its hard drive engorged with jpgs, videos and camgirls. The paradise of a man who has leaped from thirteen to thirty-five without stopping for lunch. It is closeted, narcissistic and male.It is violated, according to his central nervous system, with an invasion by his sister. Their reunion is combative and unsettling.

Life goes on but with an increasing strain as her physical and emotional slovenliness stuffs its way into every corner of his inner sanctum. She's always on the phone, pleading with someone else who finally found her too irritating to bear. She's a singer and performs at a club the night he takes his boss out.

Her performance of the standard New York New York is shown in an almost unbroken close-up that depicts every nervously anticipated cue. She goes for a Marylin Monroe "Happy Birthday , Mr President" feel. The pianist keeps trying to break it out into Broadway but she can't let go of the driftwood of coyness she started with. And the song in its entirety grinds on to its tiny whimpering death. Brandon is embarrassed by it but his boss can't take his eyes off her and claps like he's just seen a resurrected Billie Holiday. Later, back at his apartment, the sound of the pair's foreplay drives Brandon insane. He might be a sex addict but no junkie likes seeing anyone else fit up. He goes for a jog.

As his private empire of self-gratification has now been exposed to the elements, Brandon's response is like any other addict's, more of the good stuff. More prostitutes, more pickups. When he tries for something more substantial his failure is a profound self-confrontation. He doesn't like what he finally can't look away from and ... goes for more of the easy stuff.

You know where this is going. I know where this is going. We all know where it's going but it's still hard to look away. And it keeps digging deeper. Helping our own compulsion are performances both nuanced and intense. Michael Fassbender, his beauty both earthy and sophisticated, shows a man whose chief skill in life seems to be the masking of intense emotional pain. Carey Mulligan as his sister, Sissy, is at a constant teeter between disassembly and mania. They are both constantly needy and greedy having both come from an emotional isolation tank of a family, the privileged equivalent of Harry Harlow's laboratory.

But as cold as the character's might get (and they do, rugged up against their personal winters as much as the one sinking the mercury around them) these performances allow us in and we follow with a fascinated gaze.

Brandon administers the self-anihillating dosage common to all addicts. His might well be the endorphin rush of orgasm rather than an injection or the next shot of booze but it looks like addiction. When he masturbates there is no joy in the thievery of the moment nor even some solemn appeasement of an erotic idol. It's like watching an alcoholic lick the whisky spill on the tabletop, machine-like, action+action=result.

This is the Manhattan Alpha planet where Patrick Bateman once roamed, tearing into the soft and perfect skin around him. But then the towers came down and the dollar went psycho and the light of even the most refined of the one percent has a grime and borrowed feel to it. The brilliant icy sheen of the New York buildings that fill the windows of the lofty offices and apartments is like wallpaper in this tale of hopeless detachment. This feature comes into play later when he must process a life-changing shock and those towers dwarf him like adult strangers around a lost child.

Shame is an intensely cinematic film whose power is only thinly covered by its steady restraint the same way as David Cronenberg's Crash or Neil La Bute's In the Company of Men. It's only February but I think I've seen one of my top five of 2012.

1 comment:

  1. I realised too late that I hit Publish before I included the explanation of the subtitle.

    Oblomov is the protagonist of the novel of that title. He is a young Russian aristocrat typically absent from his estate and his officer's post in St Petersberg. He takes 120 pages of the copy I had to get out of bed in the morning. Among the things littering his apartment are a number of books left dogeared and unfinished. I began my thirtieth year reading this and left it until idly picking it up at the end of the year when the story of it shocked me out of a very similar lifestyle.