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Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a successful and attractive New Yorker who shuns intimacy with women, but feeds his desires with a secret addiction to sex. When his wayward younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves unannounced into his apartment and stirs up memories of their shared painful past, Brandon’s insular life spirals out of control.

 Shame
British conceptual artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen’s (I’m sure we all know this by now, but just in case, no relation) first feature film, Hunger, about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, was such an emotionally devastating experience I found myself hesitant to watch his follow up, Shame. As a rabid horror fan I like to think of myself as somehow immune to the ravages of staged horror, and I forget how susceptible I really am to the psychological attacks of non-genre films. At the end of the day the reality of true life drama is often far more harrowing than the often impact mitigating and entertaining qualities of traditional horror films. Shame is another emotionally draining melodrama, and another film I’m going to find it difficult to revisit anytime soon. Like Hunger the story isn’t traditionally told, or particularly tightly knit. McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan focus mostly on their characters and their stark emotional frailties, not on plot mechanics. This makes for an interesting and rewarding experience, and even a relatively habitual one, at least compared to Hunger, but not exactly a conventionally ‘entertaining’ experience outside its brilliant performances and elegant imagery. McQueen continues making a name for himself as a filmmaker that spurns modern filmmaking’s popular notion of fast-paced editing. He doesn’t exactly pay homage to his now famous 17-minute long single take discussion between Fassbender and Liam Cunningham here, but takes great pleasures at sticking audience surrogate Brandon in static, occasionally serene and occasionally frightening situations. Minus credits Shame is only about 90 minutes long, but feels a hell of a lot longer due to these extended takes, which is actually a good thing for the emotionally immersive experience.

Shame is just as visually striking as Hunger, and McQueen quietly develops his conceptual eye, dealing largely in still, clean compositions, and repeated motifs of character and camera movement. Even when we aren’t strictly witnessing the film from Brandon’s eyes, we’re watching the film largely from his point of view, which subjectively changes the rhythm of the film. When ‘on the prowl’ Brandon’s world remains still and clean, but when emotionally affected by his sister the camera often steadily begins to impatiently shift into a hand held mode, and focal points are shifted, eventually leading to something far more vicious during the film’s rock bottom third act. Hullabaloo has been raised about the fact that Fox was willing to release Shame with an NC-17, and generally speaking discussion has been positive, praising McQueen for clearly avoiding artless pornography. Still, the film’s graphic sexual content might offend some more delicate sensibilities, and anyone that wants to see the frank sexual imagery as salacious will see it as such. There’s rarely anything fun about these grotesquely indifferent and mechanical sex scenes (outside, of course, Brandon’s one genuine connection, which goes awry). Those aiming to morally object to the film might even be surprised by the (arguably) puritanical moral of the story. Brandon’s meaningless lesions are presented as increasingly psychotic, and even hark back to Mary Harron’s much more comedically slanted tale of upper class New York debauchery – American Psycho. This oddly austere side of the story may have been diluted had it not been made clear from pre-release materials that Brandon was a sex addict.

 Shame
And then there’s the freight train of charisma and devastation that is Michael Fassbender, who rose from the relative obscurity of British television and a bit part in 300 to that rare place in stardom where many of us would seek out a film simply for his participation. Just in case you forgot, Fassy, as we in his official fan club know him, starred in four award worthy roles in 2011 (though he received exactly zero Oscar nominations. Shame, his most praised ’11 portrayal, continues his streak of performances that are nearly impossible to look away from, even when he isn’t physically doing anything. The role could easily have been a parody in lesser hands, shifting without credibility between the required soft understatement and brutal drama, but Fassbender’s naturalistic work transcends histrionics. Carey Mulligan had an interesting year, playing two fragile, yet largely different characters set against to similarly dark-laced and general sober male leads between this and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. She isn’t getting as much credit as Fassbender, but mostly because her character is more of a plot mechanic, not because her performance is anything short of fantastic. Outside of the obvious heart she brings to the table, she also supplies some much-needed levity early in the film.

 Shame

Video


Shot on 35mm film, Shame is an almost antiseptic film experience, and benefits greatly from the rich clarity full 1080p video affords it. The film-based image is constantly swimming in fine grain, and the limits of 35mm details do effect some of the deeper set, complex sequences, but the general cleanliness is still paramount and constant. Edges are relatively clean and sharp, especially those found in foreground elements, and the occasional extreme close-up. Colours are desaturated, soft, and tinted in pastel blue, creating largely consistent hues. The blue tint is often in conflict with the warmer, usually yellow hues, which are much more overwhelming during nighttime sequences. The two major colours come about as close as two non physical presences can come to actual battle on screen, occasionally bleeding into one another and perverting the mix. Deep greens, reds and occasionally purples act as poppy highlights, usually as a way of marking a character in a crowd, and the pops and blends are largely clean and sharp (there is one heavily reddened sequence. The general look is dark, and contrast levels are successfully even-handed. The highlights are mostly clean, but the blue tint does infiltrate the black levels, which may or may not be intentional. Outside the grain there’s very little in the way of artefacts, but there are some minor issues with edge haloes throughout.

 Shame

Audio


The basic aural theme utilized throughout Shame is repetitive silence spiked by occasional throbs in volume. The softness of the track is a minor problem for the overall volume levels, especially since everyone speaks so quietly. The dialogue is relatively consistent in terms of soft volume, though the on-site captured performances don’t exhibit very much obvious ADR work, which means there are minor distortions throughout. The stereo and surround channels don’t get a whole lot of play, but there are ambient and musical exceptions throughout. Bar sequences feature a decent degree of background discussion ambiences, and stereo enhanced musical additions that usually don’t move around too much, which kind of messes up the directional ambience a little, but sounds pretty great. Music, whether it be in the form of Harry Escott’s steadily progressive, mournful score, or the oddly late disco era pop entries (shades of American Psycho?) are the mix’s loudest elements. During Brandon’s rock bottom sequence the music picks up quite a bit in general volume, and begins to dole out heavy abstract bass.

 Shame

Extras


The extras here are mostly promotionally based, including Focus on Michael Fassbender (3:00, HD), an interview with the actor about his character, Director Steve McQueen (3:10, HD), an interview with the director about the film’s themes, which only made me pine for a director’s commentary, The Story of Shame (3:20, HD), with Fassbender, McQueen and Carey Mulligan, A Shared Vision (2:40, HD), with Fassbender and McQueen discussing their relationship on the same interview, Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with Michael Fassbender (5:20, SD), and a trailer. Every featurette features footage from the film (usually the same footage, which is also in the trailer), and really brief shots from behind the scenes.

 Shame

Overall


I was looking at blurbs from Shame reviews on rottontomatoes, and noticed the word ‘mesmerizing’ thrown around a lot (it’s even on the box art, along with ‘riveting’ and ‘haunting’. It’s actually quite apt. I can’t imagine director Steve McQueen’s film will win over too many mainstream audiences, but it’s certainly beautiful, and Michael Fassbender’s performance is perhaps the year’s best. This Blu-ray release looks and sounds as good as I’d expect from the technical specs and McQueen’s specific stylistic goals, but the extras are lean and toothless.

 Shame

 Shame

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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