Telluride 2011: Michael Fassbender exposes more than skin in ‘Shame’


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There’s no shortage of naked flesh in British director Steve McQueen’s “Shame” — the film is certain to receive the adults-only NC-17 rating — but it’s human emotions that are truly laid bare in the new drama about sexual compulsion.

“Shame,” which had its North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival a few hours after showing for the first time at the Venice Film Festival, stars Michael Fassbender as Brandon, a thirtysomething New York man obsessed with impersonal gratification. McQueen, who co-wrote the film with playwright Abi Morgan, said in a taped introduction to the screening that Brandon “has difficulties with his sex life,” which is a bit like saying the Titanic had difficulties with an iceberg.
Brandon’s workplace computer and his Manhattan apartment are jammed with porn, and within the movie’s opening minutes Brandon (with a courageous performance by a full-frontal Fassbender) has slept with a prostitute and masturbated in the shower. And then things get really kinky.


For all of his obsessions, Brandon somehow gets by. But when his troubled sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), crashes in his apartment, Brandon’s shaky grip on functionality quickly loosens. Sissy is a remarkable singer (proving that Mulligan can do everything except split the atom), but she has plenty of her own problems and needs, exacerbating Brandon’s impulses.

The independently financed feature arrived in Venice and Telluride seeking a distributor, and specialized film companies who like to court controversy (paging Harvey Weinstein!) should be drawn to the film. McQueen’s intense first feature, 2008’s “Hunger” (which also starred Fassbender), was incredibly well reviewed but grossed just $154,000 in domestic theaters.

‘Shame” is not quite as hard to watch as “Hunger” (although a handful of usually intrepid Telluride guests walked out), but it’s nonetheless raw. “I’ve got nowhere else to go,” Sissy says to Brandon at one point in the film. Unfortunately, Brandon does — down, into some of the darkest places you’ll see in a theater.


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—John Horn in Telluride, Colo.