TORONTO -- If the first few days of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival have failed to produce any major hits to set the cognoscenti and Oscar-bloggers buzzing, it's got three things in spades: 1) terrific roles for women; 2) sexual frankness, often taken to an anti-erotic level, and 3) movies that get people talking. You get all three and more in English artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen's sex-addiction drama "Shame," which screened for the press here on Monday morning. If you don't know McQueen (other than as the namesake of a legendary '70s movie star), his debut feature was "Hunger," an extraordinary sound-and-vision experience that starred Michael Fassbender as IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, and that seemed more like a transmission from an alien planet than a historical drama.
Fassbender is a medium-big celebrity and cover boy in the wake of his "X-Men" role, while it's hard to imagine McQueen's films ever becoming multiplex fare. I hope fame doesn't split them up, because the Scorsese-De Niro relationship (or maybe even Dietrich-von Sternberg relationship) between the big, sexy Irishman and the garrulous black Londoner is clearly a powerful thing. "Shame" was acquired by Fox Searchlight just after its world premiere last week in Venice, and the studio's principal marketing question will be whether to release it unrated or slap an NC-17 on it. (In either case, many newspapers won't advertise it and many theaters won't show it.) As a Manhattan executive in some unnamed but horrible-seeming profession who measures his days and nights by anonymous sexual conquests -- not to mention dates with hookers, online chat sessions and regular old porn-fueled masturbation -- Fassbender is stripped naked in "Shame," in every sense of the word. (If you've heard Twitterific gossip about the full-monty nudity in this movie, it's all true.)
"Shame" hints at a conventional movie narrative a fair bit more than "Hunger" does, but it's first and foremost a visual and sonic symphony, and a Dante-esque journey through a New York nightworld where words are mostly useless or worse. (The credits say the movie was "based on a screenplay by" McQueen and Abi Morgan, which suggests that what we see on screen was largely improvised.) I would say we get 12 or so minutes into the film before anyone says anything, most of it a tense and powerful scene of Brandon (Fassbender) trying to pick up a married woman on the subway. Even then, it's only him asking a co-worker what happened to his porn-infested computer. (A man has to have his priorities straight.) Whatever garbage in their past has driven Brandon and Sissy (Carey Mulligan), his drunken, slutty and suicidal sister, onto their self-destructive paths, we never learn about it and don't need to. (Can we revise Tolstoy's famous maxim so it observes that all family dysfunction is roughly the same?)
A bottle-blond cabaret singer who shows up from L.A. to camp on Brandon's couch, Sissy somehow catalyzes a crisis in his life of unrepentant, beyond-compulsive horndoggery. Again, we don't exactly know how, and I would argue we don't need to; perhaps because of his career working in largely or entirely nonverbal media, McQueen feels no urge to overexplain. Sissy sings a killer cool-jazz rendition of "New York, New York" that reduces Brandon to tears, and then goes home with his married boss, who's way more of a loser than Brandon is. Brandon tries to go cold turkey, stuffing all his porn -- and even his laptop -- into trash bags and going on an actual date with an attractive woman from work who actually seems to like him. But he can't even fake an interest in the normal rituals of courtship. When his date (the African-American actress Nicole Beharie) asks him about his longest relationship, he says it lasted four months, but we suspect it was more like four hours, or $400.
I shouldn't delve too much further into a film that probably won't hit theaters until the Christmas season -- and what a Jingle Bells it will be. Fassbender and Mulligan both give massive, irresistible performances (the former won the acting prize in Venice) as people drowning in a hostile sea of commodified sexuality and self-hatred. (For all the nakedness and all the screwing, if you go to "Shame" hoping for a prurient spectacle you'll be disappointed.) McQueen combines '80s disco-pop and 19th-century Romantic music brilliantly, in one of the best soundtracks of the year, and his cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, uses the antiseptic interiors of contemporary Manhattan as no one has since Mary Harron's "American Psycho." "Shame" isn't an easy film to sit through, to describe or to figure out, but it's riveting, spectacular, passionate cinema.