Magneto lets it all hang out. That was the big news at the Venice Film Festival, where Michael Fassbender the German-Irish Adonis of the art house who also played the young Magneto in this summer's X-Men: First Class was on full-frontal display in the grinding sex drama Shame. Film festivals love to show movies that push the envelope of transgression, and director Steve McQueen's depiction of a Manhattan office worker who's addicted to sex kept Venice viewers alert to see exactly how far how too far Shame would go. The short answer: it's not pornographic, but it's explicit enough that it would surely land the film an NC-17 rating, the American equivalent of the old, tawdry X. That makes Fassbender the ultimate X-Man.
In his first feature since his acclaimed 2008 debut feature, Hunger, which starred Fassbender as Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands, the Afro-Brit visual artist McQueen offers a vividly clinical depiction of satyriasis. Handsome Brendan (Fassbender) has an inherent gift for appraising and seducing women; he takes one glance at a blonde at a bar, and when she closes her eyes and asks what color they are, he automatically knows brown. Eye contact is Brendan's overture to sex. Riding in a crowded subway car on his way to work, he catches sight of a lovely young woman (Lucy Walters) sitting across from him. Flattered by his attention, she smiles back and crosses her legs to reveal some stockinged thigh. As her stop approaches, she stands up and grasps the pole in front of him to show that she's wearing a wedding ring. That flash of forbidden fruit sends Brendan out of the train to pursue the woman. He'll be late for work that day.
Courtship, though, is not crucial to Brendan's sex life. He studies violent porn on his computers at home and (big mistake) at work; he masturbates in the shower and in the office men's room; he enlists the services of call girls, pounding his manhood into them with expertise and, in the ferocity of his features, a hint of desperation. His boss, David (James Badge Dale), often accompanies him on prowls. Not nearly the smooth dude Brendan is, David's a little in awe of his co-worker, maybe in love with him. Brendan tries dating another office colleague, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), but that may be a bad idea, for he can achieve release only in furtive, anonymous sex. Any human relationship is an automatic detumescent. So he's annoyed when his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a singer with a history of suicide attempts, shows up to crash on his couch. The interest she shows in David will further complicate Brendan's already full schedule.
Mulligan, who received an Oscar nomination for her role as a precocious teen in An Education, is as appealing a comer as Fassbender. She performs a gorgeous rendition of "New York, New York" as a plaintive ballad not of ambition but of longing, and like her co-star, she's on full-frontal view here. Is it odd, then, that Shame has not yet found a U.S. distributor? Not really. The film would surely be slapped with an NC-17 rating, which would keep it out of many theaters and restrict its advertising. Also, American audiences don't want to pay to see sexy stuff in movies; they can get plenty of that for free at home. (Ang Lee's NC-17-rated Lust, Caution lusher and more romantic than Shame sank at the box office.)
What's really off-putting about the movie is not the dark energy of the sexual encounters but their bleakness. They are arid, not juicy, and a challenge for even the most avid voyeur to get excited about. Filmed in elegant, unrelenting long takes with very few traditional reaction shots, Shame unspools like a documentary on the rutting of feral animals. In fact, it ought to be called Hunger since shame suggests a feeling of ethical remorse, and Brendan doesn't have ethics, only needs. We see him dwelling in a sybarite's dream world of constant sex but, clearly, not having a great time. Beyond that, he's a enigma.
Though set in today's Manhattan, Shame pulses with the grimy vibe of New York City in the late '70s and early '80s, when subways were scarred with graffiti, carpeted with old newspapers like a bird cage and packed with hapless homeless men; when Chic's "I Want Your Love" and Blondie's "Rapture" (both on the sound track) were siren calls to promiscuity in discos and grimy gay bathhouses. Shame shares a lot with another creepy fiction of the era, Bret Easton Ellis' 1991 novel American Psycho, set in the go-go '80s and portraying the moral emptiness of a Wall Street yuppie. Back then, the porn was on videocassettes, and Patrick Bateman, Ellis' deranged protagonist, either killed and dismembered many of his sexual conquests or, nearly as bad, dreamed he did. But both men are ciphers. As Patrick said of himself, "I simply am not there."
McQueen doesn't judge the character or probe beneath his hard surface, and though Fassbender exposes plenty of himself, he declines to open a window into whatever Brendan has in place of a soul. The director's and actor's point, boldly taken and bravely shown, may well be that for this nonstop cocksman there is no hope of change, no resolvable crisis, no there there. So audiences should they get a chance to see this distinctly if distantly admirable film will have to read their own moral qualms into Brendan. His fate may be perpetual imprisonment in his compulsions: at the end of the film he's where he began. Again he sees the pretty woman on the subway, again she returns his smile, and this time she's not wearing a wedding ring. The predator is back on the chase, to search for a glimpse of heaven in the second circle of hell he's created for himself.