Toronto 2011: Michael Fassbender says 'Shame' is a social critique
If you think it's awkward watching a fictional character act out various twisted sexual fantasies for two hours, try spending weeks performing them in front of strangers.
That was the task faced by Michael Fassbender, the actor who plays the sex-addicted Brandon, in shooting "Shame," Steve McQueen's acclaimed and controversial new feature.
"It was pretty uncomfortable and sort of embarrassing to get naked or what-not in front of a crew of people," the Irish actor, who appears in full-frontal nudity, told reporters Monday afternoon at the Toronto Film Festival after the movie premiered for the public Sunday night. "But you have to get over it, really, and get on with it. I knew what I was getting into."
What the audience is getting into is a visceral portrayal of a 30-ish upper-middle-class New York man who has a propensity for hard-core Internet porn, public sexual encounters with strangers and various forms of X-rated kinkiness. Brandon isn't capable in his sex life of an emotional relationship; the idea of human connection, let alone commitment, frightens him (in one scene so much so that he turns away from his partner, sends her home and immediately calls a prostitute).
Adding another layer to Brandon's story is the surprise appearance of his sister (Carey Mulligan, also showing up in one scene in full-frontal), a kind of drifter chanteuse with whom Brendan has a complicated relationship, emotionally and perhaps otherwise. Fassbender, who also stars in this fall's sexually themed psychoanalysis drama "A Dangerous Method" as Carl Jung, won an acting prize at the Venice Film Festival this weekend for "Shame."
Despite the overt sexuality, Fassbender said the movie is in many ways a critique of our hyper-sexed era. "Everywhere you go, sex is being sold to you in one way or another," he said, "whether you're buying a soda or a breakfast cereal."
McQueen, a former visual artist who made a splash at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival when he and Fassbender premiered their the gut-wrenching IRA drama "Hunger," said he too saw his new film in broader social terms. "This is about a person who has an addiction," McQueen said. "[But] the access to sexual content is quite prevalent; that's the starting point. In my day pornography was on the top shelf of a news agent, and now it's prevalent," (More from McQueen shortly.)
There are many questions about the commercial release of the film. Although it's bound to be a conversation piece and even a critical darling, questions over audience and marketing plans abound.
For one thing, will studio Fox Searchlight, the Rupert Murdoch-owned art-house division that bought the movie last week and will likely bring it out in December, release it as an NC-17 film or go unrated? There are advantages and drawbacks to both. (And no, there's no way to recut the movie so that it can earn an "R." The film would become a short.)
Fassbender said he hopes those challenges would turn into a selling point in their own right. "This film is being made contrary to a lot of the films out there," he said, "[It's] for an intelligent, brave audience that can participate instead of just eating popcorn and being entertained."
— Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender in "Shame." Credit: Toronto Film Festival.