Film Review – Shame

“I find you disgusting. I find you inconsolable. I find you evasive.”

A piece of precision filmmaking, remarkable in its ability to turn sex into astringent commentary, Shame is the arresting second feature from director Steve McQueen. It reveals, with confrontational candidness, the vacuous life of a New York-based sex addict, whose increasingly desperate search for satisfaction, escapism – even solace – finds him smothered by a surfeit of seediness.

In Shame Michael Fassbender (main image) plays Brandon, a handsome New York executive, effortlessly drifting from one sexual encounter to the next and – with a can of Red Bull clamped in his hand – blagging it at a workplace where he’s his clueless boss’ drinking buddy. As well as sex with strangers, there are dalliances with prostitutes, obsessive masturbation and an addiction to internet porn so commanding it totals his work computer. He’s a man inches away from the edge but it’s the introduction of his chaotic younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, pictured below) which really serves to disrupt his sordid status quo.

We’re first introduced to Sissy, a wildcard chanteuse, when Brandon bursts in on her taking a shower after she’s let herself (uninvited) into his apartment. She’s viewed full frontal in his large bathroom mirror; as she stands with not quite enough modesty across from him, in her provocative nakedness she is a stark reflection of her brother. Similarly defined by her sexuality from the outset she is both Brandon and his opposite, female to his male, flame to his glacier.

“Shame’s oppressive score creates a sense of suffocation and pulsating anxiety from the film’s outset”

It’s a sibling relationship which runs the gauntlet of all that’s uncomfortable. Sissy inconveniences Brandon by intruding on his privacy and – though she offers little in the way of judgement – her intrusion draws constant attention to the humiliating nature of his lifestyle. She finds him masturbating furiously in his bathroom; appropriates an earring left by a prostitute; opens his laptop to find a naked woman awaiting instruction via webcam.

Sissy is shown to have a semblance of Brandon’s promiscuity but the fact that she can’t divorce her own encounters from emotion are a cause of further irritation to Brandon and, when she sleeps with his boss David (James Badge Dale), he judges her harshly and hypocritically. However, her overheard declarations of fervent love to an ex partner can’t help but fascinate him; her unabashed vulnerability is both endearing and an ugly inconvenience to his ordered, attachment-free existence.

Sissy is also a constant reminder of his past and family, and a likely reminder of further shame, given their transgressive physical relationship (she crawls into bed to snuggle up to him half-clothed after the aforementioned encounter with David). The exact nature of their history is not revealed but is alluded to when Sissy says, “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.”

The main cast comprises just four characters, two of whom are largely peripheral: as well as David there’s Marianne, played by Nicole Beharie who Brandon briefly and awkwardly dates, reflecting how his life is lived without ties. There’s a keen sense of focus as we’re drawn ever deeper into the wanton mire, with Brandon’s frenzied quest taking him into unexpected and even dangerous sexual territory.

Given the subject matter, Shame is impressively po-faced, with its oppressive score creating a sense of suffocation and pulsating anxiety from the film’s outset. McQueen takes us close enough to care but never close enough to fully know Brandon, who retains his status as an enigma right up until the final moments, which leave us with both the possibility of redemption and of the cycle beginning once again.

“Existing in the space where art and entertainment collide, Shame is provocative and earnest, dirty and distinguished”

As Brandon, Fassbender gives an extraordinary, unselfconscious performance; his considerable promise in such exceptional fare as Hunger, Fish Tank and Jane Eyre has been leading up to this searing display, where he takes us from suave charm to desolate depravity. Carey Mulligan impresses too: playing boldly against her coy, good girl image, she’s a ruined revelation.

With Shame (which he co-wrote with Sex Traffic’s Abi Morgan), Steve McQueen – the former video artist and Turner prize-winner – takes another stride towards cinematic auteurship. Not that it’s more powerful than, or superior to, his debut Hunger (2008), but it is pacier and, even in its comparable starkness, has without doubt greater audience appeal. There’s nothing to match Hunger’s formidable two-hander between Fassbender and Liam Cunningham but Shame has style and courage to spare and McQueen has taken something thematically mucky and spun it into filmic gold.

Existing in the space where art and entertainment collide, Shame is provocative and earnest, dirty and distinguished. McQueen and co are to be applauded for creating a film of significance – so distinctly of our age – with ample ability to reach and rack an audience.

  • Shame is released on Friday

About emmasimmonds

Emma is a film and TV critic whose work has appeared in Time Out, Little White Lies, The Spectator and Popmatters, amongst many others. She is also a contributor to the London and New York volumes of the World Film Locations book series.
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