Dir. Steve McQueen
After suffering accusations of romanticising IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands in his starkly aestheticized debut feature Hunger (accusations so laughable as to barely merit derision from anyone who had taken the time to actually watch the film), one could be forgiven for thinking that the Turner-prize winning artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen (OBE) (CBE) (yes, really), might want to play it safe for his second: a light-hearted romantic comedy with Mila Kunis and Adam Sandler perhaps?
It would seem not. Given the buzz created around the sexually explicit nature of the film at its premier at competition in Venice, which for mainstream movies these days generally leads to a disappointing end product: the sexually explicit nature of everyday reality, ubiquity of pornography and the seemingly impossible task of achieving genuine shock value in sexual matters being such that claims to sexual “authenticity” on the big screen seem out-dated, received with a shrug: “So what? I’ve seen much worse on the internet”.
It’s curious then, that, taken into account this level of expectation Shame isn’t really a film about sex. To be sure, it’s there; often soft-focussed, reverse-cut and edited and, yes, I suppose, explicit, although never leaving you in any doubt as to the credentials of it’s director: this isn’t sex filmed to look “arty”; its sex “scenes” could easily stand alone as video-art. Above all, Shame is about the almost crippling incapacity to feel, despite inhabiting one of the most sensuous societies in human history.
Michael Fassbender’s “Brandon”, the putative “sex addict” around which the film orbits is to New York of the early 21st Century what Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, Patrick Bateman, was to its 1980’s. But just as Bateman’s propensity for extreme violence was a mask for the greed and one-upmanship of Wall Street, so Brandon’s use of prostitutes, pornography and random encounters fills the empty, meaningless professional and personal void he inhabits. His regard for his estranged sister Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan, as an imposition, a hindrance to his lifestyle belies the clear implication that he has no life as such upon which she is imposing. His devastating rejection of her, which begins the film’s final act, asks the uncomfortable question of the extent of Brandon’s alienation, not only from any semblance of family, intimacy or connection but even from himself.
McQueen’s tendencies as a visual artist, whilst ensuring the film looks and sounds about as perfect as it can, right up there with the long list of cinematic elegies to the dark, cold alienation of the contemporary American city, his preference for long takes can often be confounding. Mulligan, whilst a decent singer in her own way, simply cannot carry the full length, “tragic-Marylin” noir-jazz rendition of ‘New York, New York’ in the manner I think he’s aiming for.
As Sissy’s increasingly pathological need for the love of her sibling (she allows his boss to seduce her for no other reason, it would seem, than to get his attention) collides with Brandon’s inability to provide even the most basic affection and respect towards himself, let alone her, the film fragments both narratively and visually towards an unsurprising but utterly compelling conclusion. The tragic beauty of this is woven into Fassbender’s face in the film’s penultimate scene in some of the most powerful emotional climaxes I’ve seen since Tilda Swinton in 2009’s I am Love.
If you’re looking for a date movie, this probably isn’t it. Or maybe it is, I suppose it depends on the state of your relationship; with your partner and yourself.