Michael Fassbender is at his leg-tapping best in Steve McQueen’s Shame, a tale of lonely frustration, sexual addiction and grim redemption.
Sinnerman by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
While Hunger wasn’t so much about the hollow, echoing sensation of life without food as its political and cultural significance in Northern Ireland and beyond, Shame is very much emotion down and dirty on the personal level. It may not flag every blush-red wince or burning flush, but charting a course through the tawdry exploits of a sex addict, Steve McQueen’s second film Shame culminates nevertheless in the irreversible breakdown of an irrepressible hedonist. Like a junky obsessed with his next fix of prostitutes, porn and pick-ups, Michael Fassbender is a magnificent blend of charming and frightening in this superb story of the sexaholic Brandon who just can’t escape his loins.
Any doubts that Steve McQueen, the Turner Prize winning artist, couldn’t leave the art world behind can here be cast aside. There are no artistic, decorative circles of smeared detritus here. Which isn’t to say Shame is an artless film, it’s certainly not. It’s a handsome balance of evocative location, sublime photography, rich performances and nuanced script. And both Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender are fascinating, she as the chaotic and sometimes-suicidal lounge singer Sissi and he as Brandon, the orgasm-obsessed control freak. For some, there won’t be enough backstory to explain away Brandon’s extreme behaviour, only a hint of teen trauma in the siblings’ conversation; “We’re not bad people, we’re just from a bad place.” But like his protagonist, and to the chagrin of the more psychoanalytically-inclined viewer, McQueen prefers to keep us focused in the present too, in the sexiness of the here and now.
That said, Shame is about as erotic as a prostate exam. Brandon lives in a clinical white cube, where the ebb and flow of call-girls is punctuated by blinds being raised every morning and messages checked on his answering machine every night. The rhythm of Brandon’s libido runs more uptempo than a daily swing of the metronome though. On the subway, he’ll cruise a newlywed wife with a flirtatious grin and a shameless stare. The computer at the legal practice he works at is busting a drive, filled with hard-core pornography and viruses, while his working day is marked with a satisfying, between-meetings trip to the toilets. And after-work drinks culminate in pressing up against a sharp-suited siren in a dark alley, or getting his fingers wet in a bar, women weakening under Brandon’s well-honed charms.
He tries to give up, throwing away an archive of jazz mags and even giving relationships a go with a female colleague, but he finds them too hard. Or rather, not hard enough. He’s a control freak, reliant on the one-sided gratification of masturbation or a professional temptress. He’s happy not to have to worry about the pleasure of others, wrapped up in an isolated, tight cocoon of self. Or perhaps, more precisely, each petite mort is an obliteration of a self that keeps springing back up. The only risk to his self-annihilation is his sister Sissy, Carey Mulligan in probably her finest hour to date. Not only are they polar opposites, Sissy open and flamboyant, Brandon cool and detached, she’s also a reminder of Brandon’s own history, a family bond that ties him to his self. Their intimate moment on his sofa which descends all too rapidly into an argument steals the show with Brandon’s sudden violence and ugly anger when Sissy tries to revoke her brother’s long embalmed past life. Desperate to be alone, Brandon runs through Manhattan’s streets in a gloriously illuminated scene, before he finds himself being fellatioed in a dark room. To call it a gay twist would be to accord emotion to Brandon’s dalliances. Instead, it’s more sinister than modernly metrosexual. Like the scene in which Sissy interrupts him masturbating in front of the bathroom mirror, he sees only himself.
Shame ends with a final fling, a threesome encapsulated in a soundless coda, like a cinematic frieze on an erotic Greek vase. Almost dropping with exhaustion, Brandon ploughs on, his satyric face scarred with the ugliness of desperation and shame. And crying as he comes, sex here is elevated to the spiritual, the rock bottom on which to build a new self. Michael Fassbender’s performance is electric, simultaneously beguiling and repulsive, and he offers a windows into Brandon’s plight while keeping the mysteries of addiction and identity behind closed blinds. There are moments of shocking rawness and unexpected pathos, as well as a diaphanous hope for redemption that just about penetrates the gloom at the end of a very stygian tunnel. But with its visual flair and its two leads’ mesmerising performances, Steve McQueen’s Shame is a glittering gem. A shimmering diamond that cuts like a knife.
Shame is released in the UK on 13th January 2011