If Bret Easton Ellis and Harold Pinter had ever co-written a movie it would feel like director Steve McQueen’s second feature film Shame.
McQueen reunites with his Hunger leading man Michael Fassbender for another stunning drama that thrillingly re-imagines cinema’s possibilities. Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful Irish-American businessman in NYC who has carefully constructed his entire life around his secret sex addiction. The crippling nature of this addiction is hammered home in the opening sequence. This intercuts Brandon’s daily routine of sex with multiple anonymous partners (and ignoring phone calls from his sister) with him ogling a woman on the subway who initially flirts back but then gets increasingly uncomfortable even as David Escott’s unsettling strings surge in tandem with Brandon’s compulsion. When Brandon loses her in the crowd, the panicked despair on his face speaks volumes. Our sympathy is with Brandon when he’s scared of being rumbled at work for the hard-core pornography on his hard-drive, but Fassbender’s smile has never been so predatory. James Badge Dale as his boss is the socially acceptable clumsy pick-up artist but Brandon, sardonically watching him flail about, is a shark slyly circling too easy prey.
Brandon’s life starts to disintegrate when his wayward sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives to stay with him. Mulligan and Fassbender aid each other in achieving remarkably raw performances. Cissy’s eccentric rendition of ‘New York, New York’ in unflinching close-up is incredibly brittle and leads to a devastating reaction shot of Brandon tearing up. Cissy and Brandon’s lack of inhibition around each other recalls the siblings in The War Zone, implying they were sexually abused as children; a reading reinforced by Brandon being so tortured by her having sex that he embarks on a midnight jog. McQueen though, like Pinter, is uninterested in explaining. The enigmatic line “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place” may refer to a traumatic childhood, or it may not, and it’s delivered while Brandon and Cissy verbally flay each other in an argument that achieves a stunningly theatrical intensity by being a fixed-position long-take. McQueen similarly transforms Brandon’s frustrated jog into an unexpectedly transcendent sequence by shooting it as an unbroken tracking shot across whole city blocks.
Brandon tries to cold-turkey away his addiction after Cissy confronts him, and even goes on a proper date with co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie). McQueen’s middle distance long-take staging emphasises the comedy of their inept waiter but also introduces undertones of great unease. Brandon has no ability to commit to a normal loving relationship and his later (unflinchingly observed) failure to seduce her, and his subsequent exhibitionist recourse to a prostitute, emphasises that he has been empathetically corrupted by pornography. This is a film about sex addiction that avoids salaciousness as the sex scenes are made every bit as wincing to observe as watching an alcoholic friend falling off the wagon. If Hunger was almost an installation about bodies in decay this is bodies in motion – as Brandon’s spectacular succumbing to his addiction in the finale is rendered semi-abstractly. Shame is about addiction – the hopelessness of an overpowering compulsion derailing your whole life – explored with striking intensity and visual alchemy.
Shame lacks the narrative momentum of Hunger, and Brandon’s emotional epiphany feels slightly contrived, but it leads to a devastating circular conclusion emphasising that temptation is ever present for any addict. McQueen and Fassbender are proving themselves to be as seminal a pairing as Herzog and Kinski…