LFF: SHAME – Movie Review
Director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender re-unite for their second collaboration with Shame, a film which tells the story of an Irishman living in New York named Brandon. Brandon is heavily addicted to sex, sneaking off from his job to masturbate whenever he can and engaging in online pornography when he hasn’t picked up women on the subway ride home. However, his secret addiction grows implosive upon the arrival of his younger sister Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan, a self-harming and fragile soul who unexpectedly moves into his apartment when a broken relationship leaves her homeless.
A timely and modern tale about the nature of desire, McQueen is proving himself to be an unstoppable force behind the camera. With his debut, Hunger, he brought to life a powerful story about a man using his body for protest through the language of art. But with Shame – a film that similarly explores a man imprisoned by his own body – McQueen’s talent as a director has developed, showcasing that same artistic sensibility alongside a confidence for cinematic storytelling.
Dealing with a subject like this, it comes as no surprise that sex and nudity in Shame are both frequent and explicit. But by no means however is it gratuitous or pornographic. First of all, McQueen films Shame’s more explicit scenes in the same way he would a shot of Brandon in his office or at home in his apartment. As a result, he does a rare thing in cinema and makes the act of sex look like a natural, human act. Second of all, with each scene adding so much depth to its characters and helping forward the story so much, the focus is stripped away from Fassbender’s exposed penis and Carey Mulligan’s full frontal nudity and is instead placed on how this applies to the characters living in this universe. Consequently, those who will walk into Shame expecting to see an erotic piece of film-making are going to be bitterly disappointed; the heart of this film is how Brandon copes with his addiction as opposed to the acts he commits because of it.
How Shame captures sex addiction, furthermore, is absolutely riveting, exposing the quiet embarrassment that his protagonist feels by refusing to mention the words ‘addiction’ or ‘problem’ once in the screenplay and showing the tragic effects it has on the way he lives his ordinary life. In one of the movie’s finest moments, for example, Brandon decides to banish sexuality from his life by expelling his entire stash of pornography, his magazines and laptop into trash bags. Upon completing this, he makes his way over to the fridge and also pours all his food into a garbage bag too. It’s in this scene that the viewer realizes that for Brandon, the hunger for sex is no different than the hunger for food; rather than an act of pleasure it’s simply something that, once he has received his fill, he craves for again mere hours later as he shuffles out onto the streets of New York.
The decision to set the film in the Big Apple is one that, though surprising because of the British talent involved in its production, feels absolutely essential to understanding our protagonist. It’s a perfect canvas on which to paint this story based on the theme of connection. Sissy, for example, desires nothing more than to be loved and her yearning to find someone is made even more excruciating in a city bustling with hundreds of thousands of people. Brandon, on the other hand, finds it impossible to make any connection after the euphoria of stalking his prey and sleeping with them has run out. Therefore, seeing him in his bleak, empty apartment above a bustling New York – a city that doesn’t sleep where it’s nearly impossible to be alone – provides a haunting image.
The reasons why Brandon and Sissy share such desires for human and sexual connection are never entirely explored by writers Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan, but they provide enough hints for each audience member to make their own judgment. The former reservedly muses on his upbringing in Ireland and New Jersey and the latter explains that “we’re not bad people; we just come from a bad place” as the film draws to a conclusion.
Though it sounds bleak, Shame actually offers a number of very warm moments in its tableaux of sex, misery and longing. Humor penetrates a number of scenes with Brandon’s married boss, David, as he clumsily looks for a one night stand with any woman who catches his eye. But also, as Brandon’s addiction begins to spin out of control the screenplay offers flickers of hope that his humanity will be able to prevail and save him from self-destruction. The most powerful are two tracking shots that occur throughout the movie; the first of which shows Brandon running away from his problems on a late night exercise while the second shows his desperately running towards a problem he knows needs confronting.
This kind of stylistic flair infused with a deep understanding of his characters and the film’s tone is something that Steve McQueen is proving to be a master in. While he demonstrates an ability to create some wonderfully visual moments throughout Shame, he’s not a man afraid of simply holding a shot on a character’s face for a good minute either in order to allow them to express themselves. A pivotal moment in which Brandon watches Sissy perform New York, New York in a nightclub is a perfect example of this. The Hunger director holds two shots of Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender in close-up for long enough for the viewer to witness the tragedy that lies under their skin. For this scene alone the two actors deserve to be presented with award nominations come the end of the year.
Shame is something of a modern masterpiece; a beautiful piece of cinema that is riveting on a both a human level and an artist level. One that is so rich in subtext, so immensely moving and so flawlessly acted by its two stars that you’ll want nothing more than to catch it again at the earliest opportunity.