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15 December 2011

Che Peccato

In Italian, as in French, there are two words for shame: vergogna, which means "embarrassment" or "disgrace," and peccato, which usually means "sin" but is also used in expressions like che peccato ("what a shame"). There is plenty of shame in both of its senses in Steve McQueen's new film of the same name.

There is also plenty of Michael Fassbender, starring as Shame's anti-hero Brandon, who is a sort of Patrick Bateman for the 2010s. He is successful in his job, has a swanky apartment with hundreds of neatly arranged LPs and one of those old-fangled record players, takes great care of himself and likes to fantasise. Brandon is also a covert sex addict and we spend most of the film watching him as he seeks gratification. He preys on women on the subway; he easily steals the ladies his boss David (James Badge Dale) tries to chat up; he downloads vast amounts of porn; he visits hookers and underground, anything-goes sex raves; he tells girls he has just met what he is going to do to them, in graphic detail; and he pleasures himself. When he isn't doing that, his gestures are still very sexual--his vigorous shaking of a sugar packet sparks the interest of his co-worker. His work computer is confiscated after it has been infected with a virus but even then, David thinks--hopes, perhaps--the huge porn cache was acquired by an intern. He isn't happy with the way he lives his life (hence the eponymous shame) but he doesn't think he can change.

Enter Sissy (Carey Mulligan), Brandon's younger sister, a struggling singer with a troubled past, whom he hasn't seen for a long time. She wants to crash on his sofa indefinitely because she has nowhere else to go, but their relationship is difficult and fraught. He thinks she needs to stop being dependent on other people; she thinks he never gets close enough to anyone else to be able to depend on anyone. He disapproves of her relationships; she disapproves, when she finds out, of his own vices.

There dialogue in Shame is scarce (and most of the dialogue we do get involves arguments) and a lot of long shots of Fassbender staring broodingly across the subway car or from his bed or into space, accentuated by Harry Escott's dark, haunting score (the main theme is reminiscent of Moby's Mistake). There isn't really much in the way of plot and some of Brandon's escapades are shown in achronological order with long interludes of silent anguish. Fassbender is very good as the tormented Brandon but the character remains something of a cipher; by the end, we don't really know him any better than we did at the start of the film, although perhaps this is part of the point. Mulligan also performed well in a role that could easily have become too hysterical. The ending offered little resolution, not that there was exactly much plot to resolve, other than a sense of circularity and Brandon's sense of resignation to his own particular variety of hell. As Garcin put it in Sartre's Huis Clos, "Eh bien, continuons..."

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