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Shame (18); Margin Call (15)

Stories of sex and finance reveal New York’s seamy side.

Shame (18); Margin Call (15)
dir: Steve McQueen; dir: J C Chandor

Have you had your five-a-day? Brandon Sullivan, the high-flyer played by Michael Fassbender in Shame, always makes sure he gets his - though in his case we're talking about orgasms rather than aubergines. Barely has he opened his laptop than his antiseptic Manhattan apartment is filled with more disembodied moans than a haunted house. Prostitutes troop in and out of his bedroom with a frequency that demands the introduction of a loyalty card. At the office, he masturbates in the toilet stall or floods his hard drive with more porn. Yet he still finds time to impress his boss, who crows that Brandon "nailed it today" - neglecting only to specify exactly what, or whom, got nailed. With Brandon around, it's anyone's guess.

Into his tightly ordered life spills his kid sister, Sissy (Mulligan), who arrives trailing an entire carousel's worth of emotional baggage. Where Brandon hides within an armour-like grey wool coat, Sissy is as brazen as her floppy crimson hat. When he surprises her in the shower, she doesn't reach for so much as a loofah to preserve her modesty. (I hear the voice of Principal Ed Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off: "So that's how it is in their family . . .") The film's most electrifying sequence has Sissy performing a decelerated version of "New York, New York" in a restaurant. Over almost five minutes, the camera scarcely moves from her dim sum face.

As persuasive as Mulligan is, she can't disguise Sissy's function as the catalyst for Brandon's redemption. From the moment she stands with her toes peeking over the edge of a subway platform, most of us will be mentally dialling the Samaritans on her behalf. But then how would all the self-destructive men in cinema find salvation without the sacrifices made by self-destructive women?

Following Hunger, his tactile study of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, Steve McQueen has again cast Fassbender as a single-minded, emotionally barricaded loner with the initials B S. There is, of course, another kind of B S, and while I would be loath to use that expression to describe Shame, I think McQueen and his co-writer, Abi Morgan, could have dropped the "e" from their movie's title. Despite ferociously honest performances, the film deals from a stacked deck that would raise eyebrows in the most corrupt casino.

The peculiarity of Shame is that it regards Brandon as incidental in his own addiction. As the film presents it, the world around him is to blame. When he tries to walk away from sex, it follows him: a woman to whom he has paid no attention pulls up to offer him a lift. They have sex against a wall on which the word "Fuck" is scrawled; it reads less like an obscenity than an imperative. McQueen succeeds in draining eroticism from sex, just as Sean Bobbitt's dislocated cinematography makes New York look implausibly desolate. A more sophisticated picture would have contrasted Brandon less favourably with other men, to give him (and us) an idea of what he's missing in his narcissistic solitude, yet the film portrays him as a god by comparison: his boss is a married father who pants after every available woman, while other men are thugs or simpering nitwits. It's difficult to imagine a greater vindication of Brandon's lifestyle.

Disco numbers on the soundtrack ("Genius of Love", "I Want Your Love") rib him about what he can't have, or isn't capable of getting. All he hears in his head, even during energetic sex with two prostitutes, is Glenn Gould playing Bach. The music is used to sanctify him and to legitimise an analysis of masculinity every bit as frothy as the one found in Truffaut's The Man Who Loved Women.

For a film that fancies itself as raw, Shame can also be unworldly. When Brandon is at his ­lowest ebb, having been beaten up and spat upon, the most degrading act the film can imagine for him is to seek gratification in a gay club drenched in sulphurous red light. Somehow, I think he's been through worse.

While Brandon is having his breakdown in one corner of New York, a more far-reaching catastrophe is brewing on Wall Street. Employees of an investment firm have just realised that the projected losses of their department alone outstrip the value of the entire company. Welcome to Margin Call - everything you always wanted to know about the financial crisis but didn't have time to listen to Robert Peston hemming and hawing about. From the loyal employee (Stanley Tucci) clutching his belongings in a cardboard box, to the vampiric CEO (Jeremy Irons) who instructs his staff to flog everything short of the carpets, the movie itemises the effect of the impending meltdown on each link in the corporate food chain.

This is a necessarily talky film and it's refreshing that its writer-director, J C Chandor, has liberated the script from the Mamet-speak associated with this milieu. He specialises in understatement and insinuation and keeps the camera tight on his actors' faces. But there's an immaturity in his recourse to the symbolic: the hedonistic manager (Paul Bettany) reflecting from the rooftop, "It's a long way down", or the corporate veteran (Kevin Spacey) nursing his dying dog. The mutt isn't called Hope or America but it may as well be.

Margin Call is dutifully rather than beautifully made, with a battalion of strong performances, not least from New York as itself. In Shame, the Manhattan skyline at night resembles a quivering blue tightrope. In Margin Call, the early-morning city is seen through the rusty eyes of men who haven't slept and can only squint at the calamitous dawn now breaking.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis