by Laurent de Alberti
Back in 2008, director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender were virtual unknowns when their first collaboration, Hunger, took the independent film world by storm, nabbing a Camera d’Or for best first film in Cannes, and giving them worldwide recognition. So it is an understatement to say that their second collaboration was much anticipated. And yet it turns out to be a surprise disappointment.
In Shame, Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful executive in New York City, whose life is dominated by his pursuit for sex: internet porn, prostitutes, casual hook-ups, he is in thrall of a never ending sexual addiction, while being unable or unwilling to commit to any relationship. The arrival of his needy and unstable sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan) disturbs his carefully managed lifestyle.
Shame is just as much a film about the inability to connect emotionally as it is about sex addiction, letting the audience decide whether one is the consequence of the other or vice versa. And we are thankfully spared any kind of cheap psychology to explain Brendan’s behaviour, even if it is obvious that his compulsion is an attempt to fill a void in his life.
Yet for all its allegedly meaningful shots, the film does not have much new to say about its subject. What it does say about loneliness in big cities, and how too readily available sex becomes an obstacle to forming a meaningful relationship, is a little obvious as well as simplistic. The corporate offices/designer lofts imagery, all in glass walls and stainless steel, as a metaphor for the coldness and detachment of modern life it is becoming a little tired.
Shame attempts to avoid the usual stereotypes of stories about addiction, in the sense that Brendan’s condition does not have many serious consequences in his life apart from loneliness: he is able to easily hold on to his social life and career, and even the discovery of some filthy hardcore porn on his work computer, by his sympathetic boss, is quietly brushed aside. In fact, his character is not too dissimilar to so many over-sexed, relationship-shy urban men in their 20’s/30’s, despite him obviously being a sensitive man deep inside. But as a result, there is little dramatic stake and the film suffers from a lack of narrative drive. There is a fine line between meaningful, existentialist ennui and dullness, a fine line that Steve McQueen sadly crosses over.
A late attempt to spice things up shows his darker and more destructive side, that culminates with him getting a blow-job from a random man in a club, offensively meant as him having hit rock-bottom (so to speak). The cavernous, red neon lit underground gay club itself looks like an antechamber to Brandon’s personal descent to hell, but whether this is an intentional allegory or just clumsy is not even worth getting upset about.
Michael Fassbender does deserve any award that comes his way (he has already been named best actor at the Venice Film Festival). It is an unsympathetic part that he inhabits with much subtlety, channeling self-hate and emptiness, his steely glaze seemingly always locked into the far distance. Carey Mulligan, however, is lumbered with a one-dimensional, clunky part that makes her the polar opposite of her brother: needy, neurotic, and ready to fall in love with the first man she meets. It is only thanks to the vast talent of the Oscar nominated British actress that she manages to make something out of what she is given. Her peculiar and integral rendition of New York, New York in a piano bar will either bring a tear to your eye or bore you to death, depending on your mood.
Interestingly, the best female character is to be found in a minor role, with Nicole Beharie as a work colleague who Brendan takes on a hilariously unsuccessful date. The film here takes its time, and in a seemingly less flashy and dialogue heavy scene, shows his inability to connect with much more potency and with a much appreciated touch of humour, while the actress manages to express a poignant, resigned disappointment with the little screen time she has.
It has to be said that the film is a lot less explicit than anticipated. Given the subject, it is very clear that the sex scenes were never meant to be titillating, but here they are just boring, and Michael Fassbender’s Johnson only makes a cameo appearance. Recent films by arthouse darlings Catherine Breillat and Gaspar Noe got away with showing an erect penis while still receiving a BBFC certificate, so there was no reason not to show one here. It seems like a cop-out rather than the expected cock-out, and it dulls its impact.
Ultimately, the film feels as flaccid as Michael Fassbender’s on screen penis, and is a double disappointment as a result. You have to wonder if it would have worked better as a more experimental piece, getting rid of the dialogue altogether as well as any attempts at story, and making it a lot more radical, in the same way that Hunger was.
When watching Shame, I was reminded of the late Ken Russell’s 80’s cult classic, Crimes of Passion (1984). In it, Kathleen Turner played a strict executive by day, who lead a double life by night as a hooker called China Blue, living out her sexual fantasies. For all of its, now laughable, 80’s flamboyance, all red and blue neon lighting and electro soundtrack, it had a much more original and honest view on sexual compulsions, as well as repression, not to mention much more daring scenes. One can only wonder what Ken Russell would have made of the timid Shame.
Laurent de Alberti writes FilmLand Empire