McQueen’s follow-up to Hunger was destined to be hyped regardless of content. Making an NC-17 film about sex addiction is only going to add to the chatter. But Shame’s pedantic portrayal of the life of wealthy, good-looking Manhattan sex addict Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) is nothing but puritanical prurience.
How the audience is expected to believe that a rich, hot and single New Yorker wouldn’t indulge in as many sexual dalliances as he possibly can is laughable. A womaniser and porn indulger, he’s not a stand-up citizen – but he’s hardly unbelievably monstrous either.
But the not-so-hidden conservative message and threadbare premise and plot are the least of the confused film’s worries. The character’s themselves hardly give us any real insight into who they are or why they do what they do, while the script has barely a clever or interesting thing to say.
Believability is really stretched when Sullivan, in his lowest moment, ducks into a gay dark room for some man-on-man action – supposedly the lowest one can go these days when they can’t keep it in their pants – and the moral punishment for such a transgression is the suicide attempt of his sister. It would almost be offensive if it weren’t so anachronistic.
Ultimately, Shame is the confused story of an unremarkable man with a thick undertone of sexual guilt. McQueen’s sophomore effort is terribly sloppy seconds. WC
PRO: A near-masterpiece that turns sex addiction into high art
Shame focuses on Brandon, a deeply tormented nymphomaniac hiding behind a façade of affluence and success. Like any addict, he is trapped in a relentless and futile quest for unattainable gratification, his life reduced to a torturous continuity of one-night stands, prostitutes, pornography and clandestine masturbation in the office toilets.
The abandon with which Fassbender gives himself to such a demanding role is admirable, delivering a sensational performance that McQueen takes full advantage of. Not since Bergman has the close-up been used to convey such depths of emotion. Artistically, Shame is a triumph.
As in McQueen’s debut, Hunger, each shot is impeccably composed, generating an intense dialectical dynamic between the beauty of its images and the staggering violence they portray. The cinematography and production design further accentuate the emotional void Brandon finds himself in by rendering a purgatorial Manhattan of sterile rooms and anonymous streets and subways.
Sadly, the film loses some of its strength in its attempt to contextualise Brandon’s plight. At first, Brandon’s nymphomania seems to be the expression of a social malaise along the lines of American Psycho, albeit without the farcicality. Hints are later dropped that it could actually be the consequence of (presumably sexual) trauma suffered by Brandon and his sister Sissy (Mulligan) in childhood: hints so subtle, however, that an ill-timed sneeze could cause you to miss them.
Including such weighty (and here, contradictory) propositions without elaborating on them is regrettable as it unnecessarily confuses what would otherwise have been an outright masterpiece. GMC
Shame | Directed by Steve McQueen (UK 2011) with Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan. Starts March 1