“Shame” is about a player, not a game…Posted: January 17, 2012
Sex without the pleasure – and I thought watching Michael Fassbender starve to death in an Irish prison was tough. Following the revolutionary visuals of ‘Hunger,’ director Steve McQueen’s latest collaboration with the prime actor is a similarly self-destructive character study. ‘Shame’ depicts the hollow, unfulfilling cycle of an office drone and sex addict, Brandon (Michael Fassbender), who indulges in little other than pushing around excessive amounts of cash and pushing against excessive amounts of women. From the very beginning we bear witness to his wanton philandering as he spends the best part of his day in permanent surveillance mode, observing an endlessly tiresome precession of women going about their business while he fixates on their unsavoury particulars, studying flesh until it becomes his property. He silently seduces newly marrieds on the subway, staring with pointed intent until his prey has no choice but to respond.
McQueen is all too aware that a film concerned with the gruff of sexual obsession could quite easily degenerate into the kind of juvenile excesses that used to be synonymous with late-night Channel 5 and a rancid sock. Far from descending into such depths of crass or exploitative norms, however, the film succeeds in making the protagonist’s many lascivious liaisons feel compulsive rather than sensual. Under the merciless gaze of the camera, all the titillation is drained from our antihero’s encounters until, eventually, we feel as he does the unrelenting slap and unremitting grind of it all. It’s completely appropriate, then, that the movie’s moment of catharsis comes as Brandon thrusts away in the midst of a mesmerising ménage à trois as a minimalist instrumental piece substitutes the moans and groans of passion. As a freestanding sequence, it stresses the character’s mental separation from the real act of intercourse; the focus is entirely physical as McQueen lingers on sections of the body contorted in close-up and shoots without any sense of fluidity, slowly and dramatically revealing a man full of silent fury. Michael Fassbender’s alluringly enigmatic portrayal of such a desperate character is the centrepiece of this complex, cerebral story. It is a testament to his skill as an actor that the audience doesn’t leave the cinema with ‘The Female Eunich’ on their collective Amazon wishlists, as he imbues his character, clearly unable to correct his ways, with a surprising amount of empathy and warmth (and, thankfully, a distinct lack of desire to chop up prostitutes with a chainsaw.)
‘Shame’ is the understated ‘Requiem for a Dream’ of sex; it is not a rampant victimisation of womanhood, as so many films of this ilk are, but a deep, artistic portrait of a man trapped in a Dante-esque nightworld of passion, even having to dabble in homosexuality to quench his sexual thirst. It is telling that Brandon’s explicit lifestyle is only threatened when his equally as troubled sister (Carey Mulligan) arrives unannounced, complete with vintage tears and self-harm scars. In sharp contrast to her socially withdrawn and relationship-averse brother, she is an extroverted and irresponsible musician (see: broke) who finds it all too necessary to establish an immediate and intimate bond with whomever takes a fleeting interest in her appearance. Such differences inevitably lead to conflicts between the two, but not profound epiphanies or pseudo-philosophical denouements. The clinical setting of Brandon’s empty apartment forms the arena in which their childishly regressive interplay takes place. The dysfunctional upbringing they endured in that “bad place” of home is alluded to in Sissy’s voiceover while we voyeuristically partake in the aforementioned erotic engagement between Brandon and his ‘hired help.’ Indeed, New York is portrayed as a 24/7 city where gratification for any itch is easily obtained, inviting a response of enticing revulsion, but also a strange sense of pity.
McQueen’s ease with mood and framing alongside Harry Escott’s heart-synchronising score emphasise the disconnection at the centre of such an urbanised existence, exposing an Everyman plagued by insecurity and an inability to emotionally relate to anybody. A sweetly awkward (and supposedly semi-improvised) first-date with a co-worker at an upscale restaurant is a pitch perfect reminder of the failings of Brandon’s detached exterior, a sorry figure seemingly incapable of transcending physical contact. Such self-effacing zips of authenticity ensure that we feel the erosion of soul alongside the fury of bodily mistreatment, the elusive atmosphere of humiliation and determination which the screenplay manages to bottle so brilliantly.
Some critics have claimed that its slow-moving plot is a fault, but it’s best to view it as an interesting exercise in exposition: a quiet calm before an uncontrollable storm. The film sneaks up and then suddenly grips you like an addiction. Unflinching and unsettling, ‘Shame’ may take more than a few cold showers to shake, especially as it’s not a ‘Tyrannosaur’ crotch-punch but a lingering and painful depiction of a man struggling to come to terms with a condition still awaiting society’s verdict as to its actual veracity.