Unlike my experience with The Artist, I did not walk into a full theatre either time I saw Steve McQueen’s new film, Shame. It was rather like a men’s restroom or a public bus with few passengers: everyone silently agreed not to sit near anyone else. We were all watching the film together, but each of us watching it alone. The physical setup of the cinema space proved to be perfect for the film, whose protagonist Brandon (Michael Fassbender) wakes up to find himself utterly alone in the most populous city in the world.
Put simply, Brandon is a sex addict. As a high-functioning addict, though, he’s able to go about his life in secrecy, working his high-salary job and paying his prostitutes up front. Brandon’s life is meticulously detailed, rigorously following his routines, allowing no room for mistakes or slip-ups. If anyone were to discover who he “really is,” then his worst fears would come true – he would have proof that he is as worthless as he feels. Brandon sees himself as unworthy of love, so he refuses to seek it, instead hoping that brief sexual encounters will be enough to fill the void inside him.
All of this is thrown up in the air when Brandon’s sibling Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up at his apartment one night. He mistakes her for an intruder, and we are initially relieved that this is not the case–but it soon becomes evident exactly how accurate this guess was. She is his sister, but dangerously intruding on his secret life. Their interactions, the ups and downs of their enigmatic relationship, form the basis for most of the film.
Shame is frequently imbued with a non-rational poetic sense, not unlike McQueen’s previous venture, Hunger. The film tells a seemingly simple story, and yet manages to convey a wealth of often conflicting emotional responses. One notable sequence occurs at a lounge where Sissy sings her rendition of “New York, New York.” A genuinely hopeful scene, yet simultaneously grounded in the realization that the song itself is something of a pipe dream. Between this song, shot in gorgeous close-ups, and a handful of other scenes, Mulligan most definitely gives her strongest performance to date.
Then there are these moments of pure sublimity: Long, effortless tracking shots of Brandon running through the streets of New York listening to Bach; his silent seduction of a fellow passenger on the subway; and even one scene where Brandon poaches a prospective lay from his boss without his even knowing it. All of these moments are conveyed with a striking minimalism, oftentimes only needing a momentary glance, a suggestion of desire, hope for an erotic night.
This is why I’ve had such a difficult time with the film. In spite of its flaws (Hunger is the better film), Shame creates such a visceral bond between us and the character that when the film cuts to a close-up of his face contorted into expressions of excruciating pain coinciding with his orgasm, we feel that pain. We are taken into his unfathomable rage when Sissy slips into his bed after sleeping with his boss, or when she interrupts his makeshift masturbation session.
Like Hunger, the film is about a man who is driven, for good or ill, right or wrong, to punish his body in search of something. Hunger‘s Bobby Sands starved himself to death for a cause. Brandon has sex, repeated, painful sex with as many people as he possibly can. He, too, is looking for something, but his quest isn’t noble, or logical, it simply is. It is so profoundly affecting that for the ten minutes before the lights dimmed, I was on the verge of skipping over to see The Artist for a second time. Like Ebert, I was not sure I could watch it again.
While the film may fall short in certain areas (some elements of the plot seemed contrived, aspects of Brandon’s personality were hinted at but not fully explored), it is an unbelievable work of art. The performances from Mulligan and Fassbender are some of the best they’ve ever given. The cinematography is beautiful in its own right, also containing compositions which speak thematically to the rest of the film, very likely the vestiges of McQueen’s days as a visual artist. It’s an amazing film, and while it falls somewhat short of the assured vision of Hunger, it’s a far cry from a sophomore disappointment.