Director/Coscreenwriter: Steve McQueen
By Marilyn Ferdinand
British director Steve McQueen seems drawn to examine human beings in extremis. His debut film Hunger (2008) deals with a subject about as out there as they come—the hunger strike unto death of Bobby Sands of the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Maze Prison, Belfast. The deep commitment of Sands and his fellow hunger strikers to protest their treatment as criminals instead of as political prisoners and keep alive the question of Irish independence and reclamation of the counties of Northern Ireland into the whole of Ireland offers an extreme reaction to an intolerable situation for them.
With his second feature, Shame, McQueen turns his focus to another Irishman, Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender, who played Bobby Sands in Hunger), whose extreme reaction to an internal pain the film never reveals is a severe sex addiction. Brandon, who lives in New York City, works for a company, perhaps an ad agency, where high-concept talk, client-landing, and young-turk partying are daily occurrences. However, it appears that he spends a lot of his work day consuming Internet porn and masturbating in a bathroom stall. He continues with same at home and adds visits from prostitutes, barroom pick-ups, and street cruising to the mix. Aside from listening to vinyl records or running, we don’t observe him doing much of anything not related to his obsession.
Two potential problems arise. Brandon’s company has detected Internet porn use at his IP address and confiscates his computer to wipe the filth and investigate how it got there, and Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a needy, suicidal cabaret singer whom Brandon has been avoiding for years, shows up looking for a place to stay. We overhear Sissy pleading with a lover on the phone; she hasn’t divorced emotional from physical intimacy the way Brandon has, and in fact, makes more of it than it is. So, it seems that Sissy’s role is to challenge her brother’s numbness with her neediness. That she’s willing to slit her wrists to get it doesn’t really offer a positive incentive, but nonetheless, Brandon makes a bid to change his ways, tossing out his entire porn collection and even his laptop. Given the enormity of Brandon’s addiction—almost the entire film comprises his sexual activities—it isn’t likely that either bump in the road will set him on a new course, but there is always a chance. He tries and quickly fails to start a relationship with coworker Marianne (Nicole Beharie), the only woman he can’t seem to have sex with, and a second chance at a sexual encounter he ran after near the beginning of the film is the cliffhanger with which McQueen ends his film.
With no real plot and no big reveal about Brandon and Sissy’s past, what Shame offers is a portrait of a sex addict. The very first image of the film is startlingly brilliant—Fassbender lying naked on his back, a blue sheet covering his pelvis, his hand resting low on his stomach as though he either just finished or is getting ready to masturbate. But he lays there in utter stillness, his eyes wide open and blank. I questioned out loud whether he might be dead until a small eye movement broke the spell. The image is as erotic and frightening as anything Caravaggio might have painted, and it perfectly sets the tone for a film in which the “little death” of orgasm seems a longing for true annihilation.
I found the rituals of anonymous sex interesting, though certainly not unique in my film-going experience. A prostitute (MariAnge Ramirez) comes to Brandon’s apartment and counts out the cash he gives her, ending with a satisfied “OK.” When she starts to undress, he tells her to go slow as he watches. We see the same almost expression-free face in this encounter as we do when he is looking at porn on his computer. It’s just something he does, like checking his Facebook page or e-mail. I was also fascinated by Brandon the quiet predator. Early in the film, he locks eyes with a married woman (Lucy Walters) on the subway; she is clearly turned on by his gaze. She flirts wordlessly with him and gets him to pursue her off the train, disappearing before he can clear the crowd to reach her. Sexual longing is in her face, but his remains inscrutable, almost sociopathic and dangerous—a clear sexual turn-on for some women. In another example, Brandon is out with his married-but-flexible boss David (James Badge Dale) at a high-end bar. David tries to pick up a beautiful blonde (Elizabeth Masucci) who is out with two of her girlfriends, but he’s all bluster and blunder. He goes home blind drunk, and Brandon, who has said almost nothing all night, is propositioned by the blonde out on the street and screws her in an alley.
Shame is loaded with nudity and sex of nearly every stripe, but it is joyless sex, anti-erotic, in fact. Fassbender is handsome, inviting, but a complete puzzle. He tries to pick up a woman whose boyfriend is a mean-looking biker; he knows he’s going to get his ass kicked, and it’s pretty clear that’s what he’s looking for. During a threesome, McQueen isolates Brandon’s face when a look of anguish is plastered across it—virtually the only true emotion Fassbender allows to escape. His performance is courageous, committed, and will prove frustrating for viewers who want to know why he is how he is. Of course, if we knew that about sex addicts, then perhaps there would be many fewer of them.
Carey Mulligan’s casting in this film is rather baffling. She plays the kind of mess Jennifer Jason Leigh patented in her career, but the veneer does not sit comfortably on Mulligan’s kewpie-doll face. McQueen had to shoot her in harsh lighting to bring some tired lines to the surface, but in almost an apology for making her look puffy, he offers caressing close-ups of her singing a very slowed-down version of “New York, New York” at a downtown nightclub. This scene is clearly an attempt to make her into some kind of tragic Judy Garlandesque icon rather than reveal character, since that’s the only song she sings in a show Brandon and David make a special trip to see. Basically, I didn’t see any need for the character of Sissy to be in this film other than to provide a bit of plot.
Shame is a terrific-looking film, one I would expect from a talented film school graduate like McQueen. McQueen seems to be a fan of Italian cinema, evoking the documentary style of the Neorealists and the alienation of Antonioni’s oeuvre with his modernist cityscapes and portentously lit night scenes. But he didn’t quite figure out how to make his closely observed film add up. There’s nothing wrong with keeping the reason for Brandon’s addiction unexplained, leaving the title to stand for the emotion of the film, just as Melancholia stood for the atmosphere of depression in Lars von Trier’s 2011 film. Unlike von Trier, McQueen distances us from Brandon’s pain, choosing to show us the symptoms without allowing us to empathize. If it were not for Fassbender’s spellbinding portrayal of this tormented man, there would be nothing to hold onto at all. As much as I admire the craft of this film and acknowledge the talent it took to bring it to life on the screen, I’m not sure I took anything important away from it. And because I think McQueen meant me to, I have to count this as a near miss.