It is easy to see why Shame is one of the most talked-about films of the moment. This is the second time that director Steve McQueen has teamed up with rising star Michael Fassbender to create something that is deeply affecting, controversial and should proudly hold up the title of “art”.
The two previously worked together on McQueen’s 2008 feature Hunger, focusing on Irish republican Bobby Sands who goes on hunger strike in prison. For Hunger, Fassbender embarked upon a strict diet to ensure his body would look authentically starved. As if we needed any more proof that the German-born actor doesn’t mind getting physically stuck into a role, Shame (out in cinemas now) sees him bearing all in the interests of authenticity.
Do not be fooled into thinking that because the film centres around sex addiction, it is all glamorous hotel rooms and raunchy scenes. Shame features none of the enjoyment of sex and all of the sordid, empty searching that addiction brings. You will not find the storyline of a typical film here. Instead, Steve McQueen has created a character profile of a high-flying, successful New Yorker who has everything, and nothing – deep, right?
Fassbender, also known for appearing in Inglourious Basterds, Jane Eyre and 300, plays Brandon, who lives in a fantastic apartment and is the top man at work. However, he has a secret life that he hides behind the expensive coats, stylish scarves and high-flying job. His life revolves around an addiction to sex. Whether or not you believe that this type of addiction really exists is irrelevant, as it becomes apparent that this compulsive behaviour could be about many different things.
The loneliness of being at the top, the disappointment of realising that you have everything and are still not satisfied, the feeling of being trapped by circumstance. As all of these themes are dealt with it becomes clear that Brandon’s position is more universal than his unusual predicament. He brings to light all the indulgences and extravagances flawed human beings use to cover up their true characters and desires.
Fassbender gives a performance that is so relentlessly believable that it makes for some awkward viewing at times. When Brandon’s equally messed-up sister Sissy, fantastically played by Carey Mulligan, bursts into his life, Brandon is forced to hide the way he has been living. This is the first time he sees himself as he really is, when forced to confront his life and realise that he is ashamed of it. There are some moments of tenderness between the siblings, but all the way through the film it is clear that they have huge underlying issues.
Brandon’s problem now is that for him, sex has become a sordid affair that has lost any romance it might have had. Gone is enjoyment or intimacy, rather he is desperately looking for a satisfaction that he cannot find. The sex scenes are sad and desperate, showing Brandon at his most vulnerable yet also at his most alive. As sex has become something he needs, it can no longer make him happy. In one scene, you see the desperation on his face as he begins to break down and realise that he is not being satisfied.
On a date with a co-worker who Brandon actually likes and respects, the physical side of their relationship comes to nothing. He is unable to think of her in the same way that he sees one-night stands and prostitutes, he has forgotten how to be romantic, and no longer seems to desire it. In a key scene set in a bar, Brandon’s boss (James Badge Dale) leers over women while Brandon is quiet and appears respectful, not making any moves. Brendan feels the need to hide his desires, while his sleazy boss who does not have a sex addiction, experiences no shame about wanting to hit on women.
As well as a startling character study and boundary breaking piece of cinema, Shame is a stark portrayal of New York. One particularly spectacular scene follows Brandon as he jogs through the city at night, filmed in one long smooth shot that ends on a broken traffic signal – symbolism at its best. Shame‘s New York is a city that really never sleeps and has everything a high-flier could want. But if that person is ultimately flawed, then there is nothing that the city can give them, apart from an unforgiving playground to indulge in their sordid pleasures.
In the end, Shame is not so much about the storyline as it is an exposé of a character and how the people around him affect his inner world. It is a film that deals with its subject matter brilliantly and will leave you sitting in your seat well after the credits have finished rolling.