Unlike Cannes, the Toronto Film Festival (a.k.a TIFF) is a pretty staid affair. In this year's 36th edition, though, sex dominated the screen. David Cronenberg's critically praised A Dangerous Method pivots on Freud's notion of sex as a motor of human behavior. No fewer than three films -- Sleeping Beauty, Elles and 360 -- feature women, among them college students, who turn to prostitution to solve financial worries. And as a bad cop in Owen Moverman's Rampart, Woody Harrelson heats up the screen with his macho-style seductions. Finally, if there were no such thing as infidelity, most films at TIFF would have no subject.
But soaring above them all is Shame, Brit filmmaker Steve McQueen's portrait of a sex addict starring Michael Fassbender (winner of Best Actor at Venice). Arguably TIFF's hottest film (every sense), Shame not only deals with sex addiction, but leads with full frontal views of its stars Fassbender and Carey Mulligan -- as if to say let's get THAT out of the way -- and then offers enough boobs, masturbation, internet porn, and bobbing and throbbing to delight Larry Flynt. At moments what language there is pushes the envelope even further.
Shame is also a spectacularly fine film (picked up in a much-publicized sale by Fox Searchlight) that displays the outsize talent of director Steve McQueen. While Fassbender's searing portrayal of a handsome, tortured corporate type and sexoholic, more than justifies his win in Venice. The actor has traveled a ways since his recent Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre.
Shame isn't big on story, since story's not really the point. Video-artist-turned-filmmaker McQueen brilliantly works the intersection of art, narrative, tone poem, and social critique to get into the skin of a man for whom sex is pure compulsion, his sole raison d'etre. Cast as a companion piece to McQueen's first film, Hunger, about a man with no freedom, Shame examines a man with every western privilege who uses his body to create his own prison.
Fassbender's Brandon -- successful, thirty-something, living in his sleek but sterile apartment high in New York -- never met a babe he wouldn't try to seduce, even in the subway, not exactly known for ambiance. Brandon in turn is catnip to women. As a distraction from the monotony of corporate life, his real trade is juggling quickies, house calls by hookers, and perusing internet porn. His routine is interrupted when his "fragile" sister Sissy (Mulligan) crashes in an uninvited visit. The pair share some trauma from their past, which McQueen never spells out. Brandon becomes unhinged when Sissy sleeps with his married, horndog boss (James Badge Dale, superb).
Meanwhile, Brandon comes on to a co-worker (Nicole Beharie), an attractive, intelligent divorcee -- and emotionally engaged person, as opposed to his usual paid sex worker. But when Brandon whisks her off for a nooner at some high-end hotel, the terrors of intimacy make him unable to perform. This fiasco -- the one genuinely erotic sequence and the film's centerpiece -- plus his panic at Sissy's desperate need for connection, propels Brandon into New York's hellish underbelly to escape whatever memories she evokes.
The opening shot -- and opening sequence -- are dazzling. Brandon sprawls semi-naked on blue sheets diagonally across the screen, staring into space in self-reproach, the score both sorrowful and ominous. With his eyes alone Fassbender captures the shame of the title. Shifting in and out of sequence, McQueen follows Brandon padding naked around his apartment, to his commute to work on the subway -- the occasion for an eye fuck with a girl he then stalks in the station -- to the apartment again, Bach on the record player -- all of it an unsettling study of compulsion. Fassbender inhabits his body with an animal ease which makes him mesmerizing.
Meanwhile, the pealing phone and messages, ignored by Brandon, signal Sissy's desperate need to reach him. In this opening sequence, which flows seamlessly like a piece of music, McQueen artfully set up his whole story. The matchless framing of shots plus blue/grey color design form an elegant background for his sordid tale.
Sissy, a singer, is a mess, sporting scars on her arms from previous suicide attempts. In a set piece in a club she delivers a blues-style rendition of "New York, New York" which causes Brandon to mysteriously tear up and inspires the boss's seduction. Another layered scene observes Brandon on a first dinner date with his co-worker. Fassbender comically nails this man's cluelessness about human connection, as Brandon attempts normal conversation (not high on the agenda in his usual encounters), confessing his longest liaison lasted four months. Meanwhile, a waiter plies the couple with recitations of the evening's specials and the merits of different wines, reappearing at awkward intervals. McQueen favors long takes, in one case holding his camera on Brandon and Sissy from behind while they fiercely argue in front of a near-mute cartoon on TV.
Film's third act focuses on Brandon's degradation as he goes from threesomes, to night-city dives where he's roughed up by a rival, to sitting on the street, bloodied and head bowed. Throughout this section the score turns almost operatic, as if to convey a mini twilight of the gods. The British McQueen lends a uniquely dark twist to New York; subway platforms resemble anterooms to purgatory; trains are purveyors of stupefied souls.
The element of Shame that most opens it to attack is the notion of sex as addiction. Heroin, painkillers, etc. yes -- but sex? In America, if not in Britain, every condition is medicalized, perhaps encouraged by Big Pharma, the better to "treat" it. But why not regard Brandon as simply, well, uni-faceted or monomaniacal, like guys glued to football on the tube? As for his descent into hell -- well, surely life offers worse than threesomes.
McQueen has stated in interviews that what partly inspired a film on sex addiction is all the porn available 24/7 on the internet -- two clicks and you're in. Yet for me Shame embraces a larger subject. The character of Brandon channels a type of hyper-detached urban male -- perhaps most prevalent in the corporate and financial sectors -- who by perpetually using others to serve his own needs, has become a monster -- especially to himself. Though he's dressed better and has a good job, Brandon is as lost as those riders in the subway. Fassbender has so gotten into the skin of this male mutant, it's hard to imagine Shame without him. "Michael is a genius, really," McQueen has said. "I want to work with the best actor there is, and I think he is, basically."