Since its much-buzzed about debut at the Venice Film Festival in August, 'Shame' has become the source of much discussion among Oscar cognoscenti -- though not in the way you might think. After all, there is little debate about star Michael Fassbender's lead performance in the Steve McQueen-directed film about a sex-addicted New Yorker: he's towering, brilliant, heartbreaking and pretty much guaranteed to earn one of the five slots in this year's Best Actor derby. This despite playing a guy who may have had an incestuous relationship with his sister.
That's where the debate comes in: after its screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, many critics left the film wondering if Brandon (Fassbender) had an inappropriate relationship with his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). The pair have a complicated relationship: Brandon walks in on Sissy while she's showering; Sissy walks in on Brandon while he's pleasuring himself. This is to say nothing of a late-night tryst Sissy has with Brandon's boss that ends with her crawling into bed with her big brother looking for a hug. (The nudity from both Fassbender and Mulligan in 'Shame' is striking, which is part of the reason why it will likely earn an NC-17 rating before its Dec. 2 release by Fox Searchlight.) With facts like that, you'd be right to assume something was up -- and during a Q&A session after the film's press screening at the New York Film Festival, McQueen wouldn't exactly shoot down those suspicions.
"Obviously, they're of the opposite sex -- brother and sister. Obviously, the background has something to say about their relationship," said McQueen, who previously directed Fassbender in his breakout role in 'Hunger.' "It's one of those things that's in the air. When you see something going on but you can't really put your finger on it. It's like a wet piece of soup. It's constantly moving. You can smell but you can't taste it; you can taste it but you can't smell it. It's there but it's not there. That's how I wanted it to be -- to have that history. The history presents itself in the present in different guises. That's what I wanted here."
For his part, Fassbender understood that a tension needed to exist between Sissy and Brandon no matter what their past history.
"We sat down, the three of us, and discussed where these people are coming from, where they are in their lives, what's happened before," he said. "We discussed a lot [about their background]. We did a little bit of workshopping. Then I also didn't want to spend too much time with Carey as well because I wanted to keep that element of awkwardness. A certain element of tension and unsurity. I wanted to preserve that."
Before the conclusion of 'Shame,' Sissy tells Brandon that they aren't bad people, they just come from a "bad place." It's the most concrete statement in the film about its lead characters's shared history, and leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions.
"When people come to the cinema and sit down, they're bringing all their luggage, all their baggage all their history to the cinema and they're looking at people having conversations and projecting what possibly could have happened with Sissy and Brandon," McQueen said. "I wanted a situation that was familiar to each individual instead of a long yarn about what happened or what could have happened."
'Shame' arrives in limited release on Dec. 2. Check back to Moviefone for more from the New York Film Festival.
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