Great Britain (101 mi) 2011 ‘Scope d: Steve McQueen
As reflective of a deep cultural divide in this country, Cinemark Theaters, the third largest theater chain in the nation, refuses to show any film rated NC-17, which this is, as has Carmike, the nation’s fourth largest, and as will WalMart, the country’s top retail outlet, as they won’t sell Adults-only DVD’s. Mind you, this is much ado over nothing, as there are no erections and no penetration shots, standard features in adult porn films, instead offering occasional naked glimpses of both men and women, and perhaps three featured graphic sex scenes, one fairly hard core in intensity only, while the other two are more suggestive than graphic, but the soundtrack includes plenty of online porn chatter. The last NC-17 film to hit the theaters was Ang Lee’s LUST, CAUTION (2007), which grossed $4.5 million dollars, a sexually graphic, behind-the-scenes espionage tale set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1942 where a seductress was used to betray a powerful political figure suspected of collaborating with the enemy, reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS (1946).
Not to be confused with the exquisite 1968 Bergman film by the same name, this film has no historical context but instead exudes a modern day existential emptiness, featuring the exploits of Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan, an Irish born transplant to New York City where he has a successful executive career in sales. Brandon’s thing is incessantly watching porn, where the shot is always upon his face, where nothing else besides sex seems to hold his attention for long. While he goes bar-hopping after work with his boss, James Badge Dale, something of an obnoxious, overly anxious motor mouth that won’t shut up, his boss strikes out while Brandon’s quiet stares usually reel in the girl. His life (without condoms) seems to be a neverending stream of loveless sex where one could certainly foresee a sexually transmitted disease to knock some sense into his head. Instead the surprise blow comes in the form of an unexpected naked girl in his shower (Carey Mulligan, we should all be so lucky!!) when he arrives home one night. While the two obviously share some intimate history that’s never revealed, McQueen extends the curiosity factor for quite some time before revealing this is his sister.
Honestly, brother and sister movies are relatively rare, where Polanski had a field day in CHINATOWN (1974), or Kenneth Lonergan’s quirky indie film YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (2000), but more often children are featured such as Bergman’s classic FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982), Hirokazu Kore-eda’s NOBODY KNOWS (2004), or Charles Laughton’s THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955). One of the best ever remains John Cassavetes' last film, LOVE STREAMS (1984), a superlative love story swirling in wrong choices and missed opportunities, where its last breath of hope suggests it’s never too late to start anew. Written by the director and Abi Morgan, this is not your typical family drama, as both siblings are drenched in a profound hurt and sadness that runs so deep they can’t even talk about it, instead growing frustrated and angry. But one of the scenes of the film is hearing Mulligan sing a slow and heart wrenchingly sad rendition of “New York, New York” heard here: Shame Official Trailer #2 - YouTube (1:34), which can’t help but alter one’s expectations of this film, as this is Mulligan unlike we’ve ever seen her before, turning this overheated promotional anthem to a city into a song of quiet introspection. The performances simply excel, as both brother and sister are fiercely intense and provocatively uninhibited, yet also damaged goods that are internally scarred. Brandon’s reaction to her is powerfully devastating, throwing him off his game, as she’s disrupting his routine, invading all the spaces where he’s used to hiding from the rest of the world, eventually throwing out several giant garbage bags of illicit material he doesn’t want her to see.
There’s an interesting turn of events at work when an attractive black coworker, Nicole Beharie, outwardly flirts over coffee, leading to a dinner date in a restaurant, where their conversation is compelling by the very casual yet sincere way he acknowledges his distaste for extended relationships, where she instantly sees herself potentially trapped, yet also intrigued by his easy going charm and intelligence that makes her sense there’s more going on with this guy than he’ll admit to. Other than his sister, these two spend the most onscreen time together and exhibit the highest levels of acute sensitivity, certainly piquing the interest of this black director, where the next afternoon Brandon whisks her away from the worksite for a little afternoon delight, bringing her to the most fabulous upscale hotel room (The Standard Hotel, The Standard New York) most have ever seen with ceiling to floor windows overlooking a wharf with the picturesque city skyline across the river. It’s enough to make your knees buckle and impossible not to feel an adrenal rush of excitement and a tinge of sensual titillation in such a plush environment. People’s reactions to this film may vary, as many are simply uncomfortable watching couples in the throes of sexual intimacy, especially where there’s scant evidence of love in the air, where meaningless intimacy evades explanation altogether. McQueen eloquently frames these affairs with an air of prolonged indifference, holding the camera and refusing to look away from the collateral damage, usually accompanied by Glenn Gould’s near scientifically perfect technique playing the piano music of Bach. Within this sublime perfection something must go amiss, and within that minefield of confusion lies Brandon’s endlessly lost soul.
Perhaps the strongest asset this film offers is the sound design and use of music, original score written by Harry Escott, where the quietly detached precision of solitude contrasts against a heavy surge of emotion that occasionally overwhelms the viewers, flooding the scene with depths of sound that seem to come out of nowhere, where you’re literally captivated and engulfed in the moment. McQueen’s use of quiet and spare music during some of the most wrenchingly emotional moments is reminiscent of Kurosawa’s poetic use of hushed music during the most horrific battlefield sequences in RAN (1985), offering an eerie calm to an endless series of mounted columns of soldiers sweeping across the plains, most plundering to their bloody deaths in a savage depiction of human brutality. By the end of this film, a composite of ever increasing uncomfortable moments, Brandon has gone through a meat grinder and plunges into unknown territory, haunted by the depths of despair, driven by circumstances completely out of his comfort zone, where what should be sexual ecstasy written on his face instead shows wearying grimaces of sorrow and agonizing pain. Life is reduced to a struggle where nothing comes easy, where anguish falls on deaf ears, where his own capacity to involve others leaves something to be desired, as all he knows how to do is evade reality and create his own private space, becoming invisible, like a ravaged ghost of a human being, reduced to a kind of male incubus whose spirit wanders the streets like Sisyphus preying on the subconscious sexual needs of women, where his own needs are eternally unfulfilled.