New Release: Steve McQueen’s Shame
Michael Fassbender’s Brandon lies naked on his bed in tangle of sheets, staring blankly at the ceiling. Before the end of the brief, chronologically muddled sequence that follows, he’s paid for sex with one woman, ignored a voicemail from another, rubbed one out in the shower, and is eye-fucking a third woman on the subway. Quickly establishing the pattern of obsessive repetition that characterizes Brandon’s sexual addiction, Hunger director Steve McQueen’s second feature, Shame, proceeds to prise open his hedonism for an unsettling yet tremendously compelling scrutiny.
Allegedly based on research and interviews with confessed addicts, and set in the glossy, rarefied spaces of moneyed New York, Shame depicts the habitual cycle of casual sex, porn and masturbation into which Brandon is compulsively locked. Between a spare, characterless flat, an anonymous office workplace, and interchangeable bars all apparently brimming with beautiful, horny women, his life is dominated by a neurotic need for sexual release. Enter sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan): a needy peroxide blonde and struggling singer with a nice line in bleak renditions of classic show-tunes who brings with her the spectre of a clearly troubled but unelaborated family history; her presence upsetting Brandon’s evidently fragile emotional equilibrium and – as well as sleeping with his boss and interrupting him (excruciatingly) mid-wank in his bathroom – generally spoiling his non-fun.
As in Hunger, much of the story is told through ultra-long takes in which scenes unfold with often uncomfortable intensity: when, for example, Brandon attempts something approaching civilised courtship by taking a co-worker on date, a protracted, relentlessly cut-free shot picks up all the awkward silences, nervous glances and sexual tension in stark detail. Extolling the view that camera movement should be elegant but never more emphatic than what is required by the action, McQueen’s aesthetic is all hard, tightly-angled aloofness, his palette steely cool: expressive of the harsh impersonality of the city, and so at odds with the messy, carnal corporeality of sex. Indeed, Shame is exemplary of the notion that the character of America’s metropolises is most adeptly captured on film by non-native directors, and although McQueen’s disdainful portrayal of New York’s social and sexual economy might seem a little puritanical, it’s nevertheless captivating and quite beautiful – witness Brandon’s lonely late-night run through deserted streets, past empty lobbies and unlit doorways; filmed in a steady and unbroken lateral tracking shot that evokes the cold indifference of the city.
The film’s sentiment towards sex itself is pretty complicated: none of Brandon’s exploits are regarded as anything less than wanton, soulless degeneracy, and it veers dangerously, at one point, towards suggesting homosexuality is the last resort of the depraved. And, er, hi – it’s called SHAME. Yet despite all the (largely implied) fucking, the overriding feeling is that McQueen isn’t making some sort of pious statement on the nature of the two-headed beast, but suggesting Brandon’s addiction is somehow symptomatic of wider malaise, of a society alienated from itself and constantly craving easy, temporary fulfilment. Tellingly, part of the film’s publicity is a special UK quad poster that’s just a mirror with the title slapped on it in an almost accusatory gesture.
But beyond all that, Shame is predominantly an uncompromising individual portrait of flawed male sexuality and obsession; charged with aesthetic and emotional intensity, and shouldered with aplomb by the electric Fassbender – grimacing oh-face and all. Just maybe don’t take your mum.
Shame is on wide release from Friday 13 January.