Way back in 2008, I described director Steve McQueen’s HUNGER, starring Michael Fassbender, as “a study in meditation and ambivalence”. With this, his second film and second collaboration with the fantastically talented actor, McQueen turns his lens to a far more prosaic topic – loveless fucking.
Not since Cronenberg’s 1996 film CRASH, also a film lauded by some and derided by many more others, has such an adroit exploration of the emptiness and insatiable side of sexuality been writ on screen with as much style and subtlety. Superficially, this is a film about carnality, a man who cannot control his behaviour, from masturbating at the workplace to multiple visits to prostitutes in the same day. His power is one of seduction, and the film deftly portrays the character’s ability to engage effortlessly in anonymous encounters. This is no letch or miscreant – Fassbender’s Brandon is a successful New York creative professional, one who seems unable to engage in real connections. The banality of first date conversations or the risk-free encounters with genuinely attractive (yet three dimensional) women simply leave him flacid. Brandon’s no outsider, no Travis Bickle awkwardly fumbling or Patrick Bateman looking to kill (although, it must be said, he’s closer to the latter than the former). He’s good at what he does, how he affects women, yet it seems to bring him no real, lasting or intricate pleasure.
There’s a scene very early on when Brandon is walking from bathroom to bedroom, nude, the most blatant reason for a prudish US-rated NC-17 swinging unapologetically on the big screen. As the answering machine drones on with the needy pleas of a woman (we think at first it’s an ex, only to learn in time it’s an equally mixed up sister), he goes to the toilet to urinate. There’s a delay in this, us waiting for the release, one that’s simple and biological yet neither erotic or exiting. This is mere biological urge, a man pissing, yet it seems in retrospect to be the same functional activity he employs for sex. For Brandon, it’s all a form of release, without anything but passing pleasure. For him, fucking is little more than flushing liquids down various holes, a distraction or habit he scratches before feeling the itch however many moments later.
“Shame” as a behaviour is a form of covering, of sublimating something awful or masking it from others or oneself – in Brandon’s case, it’s actual emotion or human connection that he’s covering himself from. His behaviour maybe socially awkward or even prurient for some, but the tragedy of the character is in the emptiness and rage, not the carnality. The look of anguish on his face during orgasm when he engages in a (beautifully composed) ménage à trois, Gould’s staccatissimo articulation of Bach playing on the score, is evidence that even in the throws of passion he feels little other than pain and loneliness.
If Brandon’s emptiness is masked by misplaced and empty passion, so to are the feelings his sister exhibits. While her destructive actions are more conventional narratively, particularly for female characters (there’s much Ophelia in her), the wild abandon and naked neediness are fed from the same seeds as his calculating drive for sexual congress. Carey Mulligan’s role as Sissy is exposed and raw, with some remarkable moments. An epic, somber, achingly lonely performance of the song New York, New York, shot in a stunning closeup, is sure to tickle the fancies of many cinephiles. Her own manifestations of shame echo her brothers – she’s a miserable, lost person, as is he, together they’ve lived through some unexplained childhood event that ties them together and, at least in their eyes, explains in part their manic, bombastic relationship.
Just as in HUNGER, McQueen uses many of these long shots to have us linger on a particular performance or mood. Much of the sex scenes are done in such a fashion, but the most remarkable ones take place with characters talking, from flirting at a bar to a stunning scene in a restaurant on a first date. The photography is gloss free, the settings cold and uninviting, the city of Manhattan only beautiful by accident at certain moments.
This is a film that can be generously described as “deliberately paced”, and those looking for some sort of erotic gratification are sure to be as unfulfilled as the protagonist. While it may lack some of the elements of historical verisimilitude and epic tragedy that gave HUNGER its extra edge, this is still a remarkable work from a tremendous talent, defty told with a unique visual and performance style that’s compelling to those open to its themes. I think the film avoids pitfalls of giving too many answers, of being judgmental of the actions of its characters and their choices.
It’s unclear, I think whether the ending is to be seen anything more than a accidental moment of restraint, or the beginning of a more socially appropriate (yet sublimated) behaviour, him trading one pain for another in the form of succumbing to conformity. There’s no quick answers in HUNGER, it remains delightfully opaque about its character’s future. This is yet another element that may be offputting to some, but I think it one of the films strengths. Sure to divide audiences and critics alike, SHAME is, I think, a remarkable film, one certainly worth seeing and deciding for yourself whether its subtle, caustic charms and moral ambiguity speak to you as an audience member. For me, I cannot wait to see what else this talented team come up with next.