A Film By Steve McQueen
United Kingdom/United States
Shame, the second feature from British artist Steve McQueen, opens on a shot from top down on its main character, Brandon, sprawled along his bed. But he only takes up half the frame, the other half highlighting his empty grayish blue sheets. The painterly quality of this image is of course no surprise to those who know Mr. McQueen, a conceptual artists that has only recently moved into filmmaking. But it also highlights the emptiness that surrounds Brandon, who, in a world where he can have anything, still finds himself longing for something, anything, to fill the void of his life.
Mr. McQueen’s first film, Hunger, was an audaciously bold and formalistically polarizing debut that followed the British IRA hunger strikes in the late 1970s. Mr. McQueen, uninterested in politics, focused on the control and degradation of the body, and the mental power to command such an organism. It was also the first film to introduce us to Michael Fassbender, who went on to starring roles in Fish Tank, Jane Eyre, and A Dangerous Method, who plays Brandon in Shame. And if Hunger was about the complete control of the body, Shame is about a body that constantly feeds in order to keep the mental state from absolute disaster.
If you have heard anything about Shame, you may know that Brandon is indeed a sex addict (and that Mr. Fassbender reveals his manhood). The film, working from a script by Mr. McQueen and Abi Morgan (The BBC Miniseries The Hour), paints a much more abstract picture (to a bit to a fault) of Brandon than you may think. Brandon lives a high-class life up among the New York elite, working for what seems to be some sort of finance company along with a playful and idiotic boss (James Badge Dale). His apartment is a prism of sterility and his body carefully kept together (the similarities to American Psycho pepper the film throughout).
Except, however, when it comes to his sex life, which Brandon can’t control at all. Masturbating in restroom stalls, thrusting into willing women under a bridge, and owning more pornography than a 13-year-old boy, Brandon is uncontrollable when it comes to his libido, and impassible when it comes to his ability to communicate. He goes on a date with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie), which Mr. McQueen shoots in a single take, that he almost blows by not being rude or cruel, but simply being a stone cold slate of nothing. When the two later head to his bedroom, Brandon can’t understand sex as an act of passion and romance more than an act of relieving excess.
Much of this comes out in Mr. Fassbender’s controlled and nuanced performance, which reveals the desire to release furious anger but contained in a bottle much too small. Given little dialogue, Mr. Fassbander uses the smallest of gestures to hint at Brandon’s darker past and strange impulses. Like in Hunger, the thespian understands performance is about physicality displaying emotionality--not through giant movements, but miniscule turns.
The performance is in complete opposition at least to Carey Mulligan, who plays Sissy, Brandon’s uncontrollable and unstable sister that barges into Brandon’s life. Sissy, sporting a collection of vintage clothing (as well as a couple hospital bracelets) lives in complete opposition to Brandon’s outward life, throwing herself at anyone or anything willing to give her some sort of connection. Their back-story is painted in the smallest of details, most notably at a night club where she sings a mellowed version of “New York, New York” and he lets out a single tear.
What has driven Sissy and Brandon to their imperfect and destructive livelihoods? Mr. McQueen and Ms. Morgan kind of leave the details to the visual clues, especially in how the director uses the visual space and empty streets suggest a sort of hollow world of numerous windows that let onto the world everyone’s secrets, but only in anonymous ways. But these details are somewhat problematic in that while they capture what feels like nuance of actually broad strokes. The dangerous notions of Brandon’s culture that lead him to his current life end up being much more simple than the intelligence of Mr. McQueen’s camera often suggests. In Hunger, the director took a well-known story and used an insider perspective to remark on details instead of a whole picture. Here, Mr. McQueen lets the plotting of the narrative sometimes get the best of him, which culminates in a few obvious sequences with a score full of ominous tones that attempts to turn Brandon’s story to Shakespearian heights, almost to a moment of parody (one critic referred to it as part of the "sad sex drama" genre).
None of this would be too frustrating of it weren’t for the restraint that Mr. McQueen often shows in letting long takes capture feelings with authenticity, and using editing to throw a wrench into our understanding. Shame presents a unique portrait of a man searching for connection, but only understanding it through a physical unstoppable force that is beyond his mental mechanisms. The film bookends Brandon as he stares at a married woman on the subway, all the titillating possibilities running through his head as he stares up and down her legs. But what could bring this man to think of her as more than an orifice, a way to relieve himself of what ever keeps him awake at night, running through the streets? Brandon can’t seem to figure it out, and Shame presents neither tragedy nor redemption, but instead a fight for survival of a life that is unsustainable.