2011 // UK // Steve McQueen // November 12, 2011 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Landmark Tivoli Theater)
With his sophomore feature film, Shame, director Steve McQueen once again ruthlessly observes as Michael Fassbender subjects himself to a hideous regimen of self-annihilation. However, whereas McQueen's stunning 2008 debut, Hunger, depicted an IRA true believer forgoing food as an act of political protest, the director's new film focuses on a man utterly dominated by sexual compulsions. Brandon (Fassbender) leads a quintessential lonely New York City bachelor life, one bounded by a successful New-New Economy career and aseptic one-bedroom apartment, but defined by the relentless pursuit of orgasm. "Libido" seems too feeble a word to describe Brandon's drives, which are akin to a yawning, ravenous void that he fills with an endless succession of one-night-stands and call girls (not to mention habitual wanks in the office restroom). Into this frenzied pit of sexual need tumbles Brandon's little sister, Cissy (Carey Mulligan), a struggling torch-singer who crashes on his couch when she finds herself back in New York and between lovers. Needless to say, Cissy's presence sets Brandon on edge, not only because of their sharp personality clashes, but because Baby Sis throws a monkey-wrench into his sexual routine.
Regardless of whether Brandon's disengaged, hypersexual behavior truly constitutes “sexual addiction,” (or whether such an affliction even exists), the man is plainly engaged in a fearsome cycle that is spiraling slowly and inevitably downward, a cycle he seems to find personally repugnant and yet is unable to halt. There's no denying that Shame is a psychologically ugly film, repugnant in a way that even Hunger never managed. The latter film at least grapples with the alleged moral purity of self-destruction for ideological reasons, even if it never fully embraces such a view. By comparison, Brandon's carnal pursuits contain not a hint of joyful hedonism, just a slack inertia and a whopping dose of self-hatred. In the main, the film relies on Fassbender's exceedingly raw performance to convey the foulness of Brandon's rutting, rather than on seedy style or production design. To wit: There is a extended threesome scene late in the film that is lovingly shot in golden hues, scored with rapturous strings, and edited to take the viewer sleekly from one position and act to the next. And yet Fassbender's face contains all the evidence necessary to illustrate that this erotic marathon is an act of supreme unhappiness and loathing.
It's this kind of bold upending of expectations—and the refusal to indulge in cinematic laziness—that makes McQueen's film-making approach so invigorating, no matter how unpleasant the subject matter. The director's use of anamorphic widescreen is, if anything more striking here than in Hunger, and his camera placement and use of long takes are just as thrilling. Returning cinematographer Sean Bobbitt presents a cool, gorgeous urban landscape that glints with a distinctly Gotham atmosphere. Meanwhile, the film's look also subtly complements its deep aura of twenty-first century despair, with all the directionless anxiety that implies. Buried deep in the script is a suggestion that family abuse is at the root of Brandon and Cissy's problems, but Shame isn't particularly interested in excavating the siblings' deeply scarified psyches in search of personal demons to exorcise. This is gruesome portraiture, pure and simple, executed largely without the pleasure of a redemptive narrative arc. The film simply wants us to look unflinchingly at Brandon and consider how such an outwardly functional but inwardly broken person could be created and sustained.