Steve McQueen returns, having impressed critics and audiences alike with his uncompromising, beautiful and visceral directorial debut feature Hunger, released in 2008. Hunger explored IRA political activists’ treatment in prison during Thatcher’s Britain, focusing in particular on Bobby Sands’ hunger strike. The contrast between the ghostly long takes of McQueen’s camera and brutal imagery, coupled with Michael Fassbender’s outstandingly daring and emotive performance made Hunger a truly unforgettable experience.
Fassbender also stars in Shame, and placed in equally compromising and explicit situations where most actors wouldn’t dare go – namely, repeated full frontal nudity. Unlike Hunger, Shame isn’t steeped in any kind of socio-political backdrop, and exhibits a much more closed and insular narrative. Instead, it’s about sex addiction, and this issue is channelled through Fassbender’s character Brandon – a wealthy and successful New Yorker whose life cyclically revolves around a relentless urge to find sexual gratification, seemingly at all times.
Brandon’s addiction renders him having sex with countless women, looking at porn whenever he can, masturbating a heck of a lot and, most importantly for the film, spiralling out of contact with all of those around him. Fassbender’s bewildered and alienated angst is brought to the fore by the arrival of his sister Sissy, played by Carrey Mulligan, who isn’t exactly a vision of happiness herself.
Although Shame is about sex addiction, it is primarily a character study, and the issues of sex addiction revolve around this focus. The film starts out promisingly, with the opening nine or ten minutes brilliantly setting up Brandon’s self-imposed disconnection from others through his nonchalant evasion of several pleading answer phone messages from female admirers. These sequences are cut between his shameless (no pun intended), pursuit of a woman he’s exchanged but a few glances with on the subway.
Such scenes contain little dialogue, centring instead on McQueen’s predilection for long takes which linger and emphasise the importance of the film’s superb aesthetic composition. McQueen’s background as a visual artist is clearly on display right from the very opening image of the film, and Shame’s imagery is impressive from beginning to end.
As one would expect, there’s a lot of sex and nudity. Fassbender is almost naked as often as he is clothed, and his braveness in exhibiting himself so uncompromisingly is to be saluted. Fassbender gives a fantastic performance throughout, imbuing Brandon with a fierce, penetrating sexual intensity and a chaotic melancholy which creates an interesting and multi-faceted character for the film to flow through.
Mulligan is also solid in her supporting role, but for my money is totally outshone by Fassbender. The aforementioned sex scenes, for me at least, are never gratuitous, and aren’t portrayed in a grotesque manner for moral judgement either. Instead, the camera adds a cold and disconnected sterility to them, which seems to eloquently reflect Brandon’s spiralling disconnection from meaningful human contact as his addiction consumes him.
While the performances are faultless and the images impressive, Shame doesn’t add up to all that it could have been. McQueen’s use of tracking shots, long takes and lack of dialogue shows an excess of style which, whilst initially intriguing, can’t compensate for the film’s distinct lack of substance. The opening scene poignantly and succinctly sets up Brandon’s alienation, but the film doesn’t really progress anywhere beyond this.
Some of the most impressive shots in Shame, both in terms of execution and vision, most notably a lengthy tracking shot of Brandon jogging through the streets of New York, actually become quite dull, as they merely seem to repeatedly display the character’s disconnection from the world around him without any reflective poignancy or engaging ambiguity.
On top of Shame’s visual anaemia, the narrative also becomes increasingly stale, with clichéd moments – a sequence of embarrassing erectile dysfunction causing a crisis of character standing out as being particularly trite. On top of a string of such clichés, the plot is incredibly predictable, and as such loses most, if not all, of its emotional weight (to avoid spoilers I’ll refrain from details here), which is what the film should really be relying on to engage the audience.
McQueen’s second feature bears many visual similarities to Hunger, but lacks that film’s raw and engaging dynamism. While the sex scenes are bold and explicit in their depiction, they lack intensity and fall flat on the already fairly sparse narrative. Shame starts very promisingly but gets stuck in second gear and can’t really shift in pace, creating an air of pretentiousness which highlights how the film thinks it’s a lot more clever and important than it actually is.
There are undeniable flashes of brilliance within Shame, but they can’t stand up under the pressure of its inescapable monotony. Fortunately for McQueen, the strong performances from Fassbender and Mulligan just about save Shame from being a totally disappointing and potentially even dull experience.
If you haven’t seen either of McQueen’s films, I’d advise you to avoid Shame and get hold of a copy of Hunger instead; it contains all of the best parts of Shame and much, much more.