Director : Steve McQueen
Screenplay : Steve McQueen & Abi Morgan
MPAA Rating : NC-17
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Michael Fassbender (Brandon), Carey Mulligan (Sissy), James Badge Dale (David), Nicole Beharie (Marianne), Lucy Walters (Woman on Subway), Elizabeth Masucci (Elizabeth), Robert Montano (Waiter)
Steve McQueen’s Shame, which depicts the soulless exploits of a sexually addicted Manhattanite, simultaneously raises two paradoxical questions: How much is too much and how little is too little? The first question revolves around the film’s depiction of abject sexuality, which is explicit enough to warrant the MPAA’s dreaded NC-17 rating (the first time a major U.S. distributor has dared market such a film since Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution in 2007), while the second questions revolves around the narrative that contextualizes all that abject sexuality. In short, Shame has a great deal of miserable grinding and very little depth of story or characterization. How you respond to the film will rely heavily on how you see that balance working.
The story takes place in the present day, although its frequent focus on the seamy side of New York City--graffiti-sprayed back alleys, grungy subway cars, hellishly lit gay bathhouses--makes it feel like a product of the late 1970s or early 1980s, prior to the Disneyfication of Times Square and 42nd Street. The protagonist is Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a handsome thirtysomething whose vague corporate job affords him a cool, fashionable lifestyle replete with a well-located minimalist high-rise apartment, a sleek wardrobe, and disposable income to fund regular nightlife in clubs and posh restaurants. When we first see Brandon, he is lying alone in bed, which is a fitting introduction for a man whose secret addiction to meaningless, anonymous sex all but defines him. He is a solitary creature who seems to take no pleasure in anything, especially satisfying his seemingly nonstop sexual urges. If he isn’t picking up women on the subway or in bars, he is visiting call girls, downloading porn on his laptop, or masturbating in the men’s room at work. While there is much flesh on display and copious amounts of copulation, the joyless, mechanical nature of it all obviates any potential arousal.
Brandon’s lifestyle is interrupted with the arrival of Sissy (Carey Mulligan), his needy, emotionally unstable, and suicide-prone younger sister who says she has nowhere else to go. Brandon and Sissy are, in every way, opposites: Where he is cold, stern, and detached, she is emotionally fraught, intense in her shifting from laughter to tears, and always in desperate need of human contact. They are both broken souls with an inability to connect; the difference is that Brandon has long since given up trying while Sissy continues, vainly and pathetically. Their tense interactions suggest a great deal of shared past traumas (not to mention incestuous desires), but the screenplay by McQueen and playwright Abi Morgan is reluctant to provide any psychological insight beyond what we see on the surface and what we glean from vague dialogue.
The only thing we know for sure about Brandon is that he is originally from Ireland, immigrated to the U.S. and grew up in New Jersey, has little contact with his family, and has never been in a relationship longer than four months. We see that his primary personality characteristic is his selfishness, which is intimately connected with his sexual monomania and inability to connect with anyone outside his own skin. But, beyond that, we know nothing about him, which invites us to see Brandon as a cipher, a soulless creature into whom we can pour our own intuitions and speculations. For some, this is invigorating, the very stuff of moody, abstract art cinema, while for others it is maddening in its apparent laziness. If we are to suffer through 101 minutes of Brandon’s wretched, unsatisfying existence, shouldn’t we at least have some inkling of who the man is and what makes him tick? We know he suffers. We know he hates himself and probably everyone around him. But why? What drives his compulsions?
Alas, those questions are never answered. In place of narrative depth, McQueen, an installation video artist-turned filmmaker whose first film, Hunger (2008), starred Fassbender as IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, expends a great deal of artistic energy on the film’s surfaces, which, truth by told, look fantastic. Shot primarily in cool tones of gray and blue that reflect Brandon’s isolation and lack of emotion, Shame generates is melancholic mood in the opening frames and never lets up; it isn’t until Brandon is spiraling into his own sexual oblivion that the tone gives way to any kind of emotional intensity (not surprisingly, at this point the color palette shifts to fleshy yellows and hellish reds).
McQueen’s installation art frequently relies on the use of physical space, and he has successfully translated that cinematically via the ’Scope frame, which he uses in consistently intriguing ways to literalize the entrapment of Brandon’s sexual appetites. He is also given to long takes and minimal editing, which serves the actors extremely well (despite the lack of obvious depth, Fassbender and Mulligan are powerfully effective). When Brandon goes on a date with a coworker (Nicole Beharie), McQueen allows the entire conversation to unfold without a cut, which draws us in with its suggestion of some kind of interpersonal connection. Connection, alas, is nowhere to be found except in the purely animal, physical sense, which by its very nature is fleeting. Thus, Shame leaves us with very little to hold on to except the dismal understanding that, for Brandon, there is no joy, there is no forgiveness, and there is no escape.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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