Originally seen at the BFI film festival
The most impressive aspect of Shame, Steve McQueen's much hyped feature about sex addiction, is how effectively it conveys the complexity of non verbal communication. The film hinges on this dexterity becauseBrandon (Michael Fassbender), just like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, is adept at keeping up appearances when required.
The opening scenes portray a successful businessman going about his daily routine; nothing seems to be amiss. Slowly however, thanks to McQueen's decision to present the world from Brandon's perspective, we see how sexual desire covertly runs every aspect of his life. The gloss of a lipstick, or a subtle peek at a girl as she walks past, even the morning commute involves what can best be described as 'mind sex' with an attractive girl who frequents the same route. Brandon has himself sorted a systematic routine, carefully curated to ensure his position as a sexual sociopath is maintained. That is until his unstable sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), makes an enforced stay at his apartment. Unable to control the situation and convene real emotion with his purely sexual understanding of women, things unravel rapidly.
Fassbender and Mulligan are fantastic in their roles, offering intense yet restrained accounts of their characters polarised personalities. McQueen and his editor, Joe Walker, expertly manage to layer the scenes with microscopic nuance, often in single, wide angle shot. This refusal to dilute undoubtedly benefits the character study - allowing the diverse vibrancy of New York City to contrast against Brandon, who cuts a lonely figure, lost in a sprawling metropolis.
Indeed, the interaction between the siblings that speaks volumes. One of the film’s most awkward episodes sees Sissy hook up with Brandon's adulterous boss, Dave (James Badge Dale), after they go to see her perform a heartbreaking rendition of 'New York'. Extended shots keep the detail upon Brandon throughout this three-way interaction, capturing his seething gaze during the taxi ride home asSissy and Dave make out beside him; remaining very much in view. It is clear Brandon cannot cope with invasion into his den: we watch him squirm in childlike fashion at the sounds coming from his bedroom. For someone so sexually immature, the involvement of his sister in his addiction, however indirect, is untenable. For example, when a stark naked, enraged Brandon wrestles Sissy on the sofa after she walks in on him masturbating, it is uncomfortable because it implicates an incestuous subtext. Sissy initially thinks it is playful but quickly realises the darker intentions revealing the extent of both his addiction and shame.
The tension perfectly symbolises the explicit/implicit dynamic cultivated by the screenwriters. The graphic nudity and sex scenes are never presented frivolously, rather with honesty and objectivity. Sex is never potrayed as pleasurable for Brandon because he is unable to see it as an emotional act. Whenever feelings are involved he, quite literally, fails to rise to the occasion. Therefore, the explicit scenes only truly serve to underline the depth of despair. McQueen equally relies on these techniques during Sissy's aforementioned soul performance, using a beautifully haunting close up to portray the underlying cry for help hidden in her words. Similarly, the reasons behind the characters’ emotional issues are only hinted at throughout. Some have unfairly perceived this interpretive approach to constitute a lack of depth, when actually this is key to the film’s success, showing how the same experiences can have vastly different impacts upon two people.
Shame presents a snapshot of a man battling internal demons, whilst realising all actions can never solely be confined to the individual. It is bold, unsettling and disarmingly authentic; offering no apologies for this. The biggest insult will be if the brutal realism shames this cinematic triumph out of contention come award season. After all, as Sissy states: ‘we are not bad people, we just come from a bad place’.