Brandon, the fictional modern-day sex addict played by Michael Fassbender in Shame, would have benefited from shrink sessions with Carl Jung, the real-life early-20th-century Swiss psychiatrist played by Michael Fassbender in A Dangerous Method. And vice versa. From Jung, Brandon might have gained insight into his compulsive behavior in filmmaker Steve McQueen’s aestheticized NC-17-rated study in Calvin Klein-style obsession. Jung might have advanced his daring notions of psychoanalysis, explored by filmmaker David Cronenberg in an understatedly passionate study of ferocious interpersonal relationships played out under cover of demure Edwardian collars and petticoats.
If anyone could have pulled off the time travel required for the mash-up, it’s the handsome, ambitious Fassbender. His high-flying 2011 itinerary has also included stops as a soulfully broody mid-19th-century Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre and a Machiavellian Cold War-era Erik ”Magneto” Lehnsherr in X-Men: First Class. But the distance between Shame and A Dangerous Method in everything but the movies’ shared interest in the mysteries of sexual desire is much more than a simple matter of shifting eras. There’s a yawning gap between the narrative values of one movie that’s all about surfaces and another that expertly explores emotional depths.
Shame is the ”dirty” movie — the one with lots of graphic sex scenes and an unblinking eyeful of frontal nudity from a lot of interchangeable female sex partners as well as from the frontally endowed Fassbender himself. Even the movie’s title hints at prurience, debasement, something feelthy. Yet the biggest surprise in Shame is how distanced, passionless, and merely skin-deep the director’s attention is — how little he cares about the subject of his own movie.
McQueen is a visual artist, and he’s drawn to surfaces and tableaux here, just as he was in his previous film, Hunger, which starred Fassbender as 1980s IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. But where Hunger’s painterly, Pietá-like images support McQueen’s depiction of a real figure, Shame’s visual style feels more like the filmmaker’s own compulsion. (New York City is a perfectly lit blur of gray, soiled cityscape, punctuated by perfectly lit scenes on stylishly grimy subway cars.) Fassbender delivers a riveting performance, giving himself over completely to become a man addicted to lust. Still, we know nothing about Brandon except what we see: He’s hunky and well dressed. He lives in a design-y New York apartment fitted with high-end gadgets. And from this (as well as from his generic corporate employment) we can deduce that he’s financially well-off. I realize that sex addicts come from all social classes — but wow, this perv has lucked out in the size of his assets.
Brandon’s daily grind involves hookers, pickups, Internet porn, masturbation, and guys’ nights out with his boss (James Badge Dale). Then Brandon’s sister Sissy comes to town unexpectedly and crashes at his place. Played by Carey Mulligan with a sexuality and female hunger I’ve never seen from her before, Sissy is a quivering mess of neediness. And something about that vulnerability pushes Brandon to new depths of shame. Why are brother and sister so damaged? Who knows. (They grew up in New Jersey, but that’s not enough intel for a diagnosis.) At one point Brandon and his boss go to a nightclub to hear Sissy sing and the brother weeps as the sister sings ”New York, New York” slower than any human has ever sung Kander and Ebb in the history of spreading the news. Perhaps Brandon cries knowing that if Sissy can make it to the end of the lyrics before daybreak, she can make it anywhere? That’s as logical a theory as any to work with in this voyeuristic art project.
Shame is eager to rub audience noses in unhappy sex. But in its compassionate embrace of the human erotic urge in all its kinks, A Dangerous Method turns out to be the truly sexy movie — a stately subversion from the maker of A History of Violence. This time, with a bourgeois mustache and precise gestures, Fassbender emits a real erotic charge. His Jung is a man of appetites, even as he displays the fine manners of a cultivated married gentleman of high standing in Swiss society; the actor lets us feel the fellow’s vitality. An adaptation by Christopher Hampton (Atonement) of his own 2002 play The Talking Cure, the movie is a sturdily constructed triangle of desires. (Hampton’s play was itself based on John Kerr’s 1993 book A Most Dangerous Method.) Keira Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a distraught woman in shrieking, writhing hysterics when she arrives at Jung’s clinic. Thanks to her therapeutic ”talking cure” sessions with the doctor, Sabina gains insight into the unconscious influences on her intense sexual fantasies. She also, for a while, becomes Jung’s lover, and later his colleague as a gifted analyst herself.
Knightley pours herself into the role with ballsy abandon, whether in the throes of hysterical tics, in sexual ecstasy, or merely conversing in Sabina’s complicated Russian-German accent. Jung, meanwhile, engages in his own fierce oedipal struggle with his mentor Sigmund Freud. And the founding father of psychoanalysis is given vivid human dimensions (amused, competitive, vindictive, charming, imperious, cigar-loving) by Viggo Mortensen in his third fruitful collaboration with the director. There’s a vibrant push-pull between Jung and Sabina, between Jung and Freud, and, in turn, between Freud and Sabina as the extraordinary young woman eventually positions herself between the two men.
A Dangerous Method moves forward with a calm that belies the revolutionary notions of personality construction being discussed — and demonstrated — in this rich story set on the eve of World War I. Intelligent conversation about the interplay of erotic and destructive urges takes place over cups of tea in fine bone china. Yet the movie is a radically modern story about sex. And in the relationship of Jung and Freud, it’s a tale of father-son struggle as old as myth. With his clothes on, Michael Fassbender reveals a man in full. Shame: C; A Dangerous Method: A-