Shame - Movie reviewRead our interview with the creators and cast of Shame here.
A handsome New York professional going through the motions of casual sex and masturbation to limitless supplies of internet porn, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) finds his carefully constructed routine interrupted by the unexpected arrival of his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who needs a place to stay.
She takes up residence on his couch as his world slowly begins to crumble around him: he tries dating a friendly coworker (Nicole Beharie) with mixed results; he awaits his fate when his office computer (filled to the brim with porn) is taken away for a routine repair. When it all gets too much for him he goes for long, bleak jogs around New York. When that gets too much for him, he hires a prostitute or has a wank in a bathroom stall.
Sissy has less success keeping her shattering life under wraps: she drinks hard, sleeps with Brandon's boss (James Badge Dale); she's flailing. She has "a gig" at a cocktail bar and sings a mournful New York, New York, the bulk of which is shot in an unflinching, extended close-up. It makes Brandon cry; you may react similarly. It might seem too convenient a narrative device to turn that anthem of possibility on its head, but somehow, soundtracking these two disintegrating aliens (they are from Ireland via Jersey), it works.
Eventually there are some hints as to why Sissy and Brandon have ended up the way they have, but they're really only that, hints, and maybe not even that at all. The film ends as it begins, sorrowful and detached.
Shot in a New York that looks nothing like the tidy, post-Giuliani Big Apple of today, Shame plants Brandon in miserable-looking subway cars, grimy alleys and cold, sterile architecture; a sort of cold, 21st century Saturday Night Fever (another depress-a-rama New York meditation that has somehow been misremembered as a camp disco flick).
The use of Blondie's 'Rapture' and Chic's glamorously harrowing 'I Want Your Love' only adds to the mournful throwback mood. It's certainly no mistake that it's the Chic song that is blaring from Brandon's record player when he discovers Sissy has arrived:
Sometime, don't you feel like you
Never really had a love that's real
Well, here I am, and who's to say
A better love you won't find today
Just one chance and I will show you love
Like no other, two steps above
On your ladder
I'll be a peg
I want your loving
Please don't make me beg
Director Steve McQueen approaches filmmaking like installation art: Shame is less a narrative than a meditation, a series of moments, but it's no less effective for that. In fact I think it would be decidedly less powerful were we to be given the standard Hollywood addiction/redemption arc.
Fassbender and Mulligan are equally excellent; Sissy is unhinged and passionate while Brandon slowly, sadly collapses in on himself.
Is Brandon a "sex-addict"? It doesn't really matter (the concept is contentious anyway); rather, Shame is a portrait of a person desperately trying to find - or, perhaps, escape - meaning in the compulsive pursuit of climax. Buzzcocks' merrily cathartic Orgasm Addict it isn't.
The level of gag-making that surrounds discussion of the film - "Fassmember!" "Assbender!" - suggests that people are deeply uncomfortable with either the notion of sex addiction, or with the level of honesty that Fassbender (and Mulligan) brings to the film, or with intimacy, or god knows what. Much commentary also centres on how "brave" a performance it is, but isn't this what actors are supposed to do? Shouldn't we expect this sort of commitment in every role, whether they involve nudity or not?
It's all beside the point, really.
In the end, it isn't the raw sex scenes that make Shame a difficult film to watch, but the raw emotion.
- four stars
Join the conversation below