Monday, December 5, 2011


Brandon Sullivan, the hopeless sex addict played by Michael Fassbender at the centre of Steve McQueen’s new film Shame is almost always clinging to the side of a frame that only he occupies. No matter where Brandon goes, there is his face and his body, disconnected from the people around him. It seems a deliberate choice by McQueen to show Brandon this way: no matter on the crowded subway or the full boardroom at work, there is Brandon, a part of normal 30-something upper-class New York life, doing his best to appear to fit in, but always belonging to a lonely space all by himself. From time to time, he’ll let someone in but in all cases it's for sex. You can come into Brandon's world, but don't take your coat off, this space, at the end of every day, belongs to only him. 

That’s the approach to Shame, a stark and sexually intense film in which sex is more about Brandon’s desperate attempts to fill some hollow craving inside of himself than as titillation. There is no pleasure in the sex we see in Shame; only the reality of the man desperately engaging in it. That’s the drama of Shame, which, as can probably be gleaned from it’s title, is not so much about sex itself, but a man who, ironically, can’t seem to function without it and yet only seems to be functioning with it.

What makes the film so fascinating is not that this man is addicted to random, anonymous sex, but the way the film portrays how the hollow feeling that he gets from it is the closest he can come to establishing a normal emotional connection. Sex isn’t something Brandon craves for pleasure, it’s the only way, no matter how sick, desperate or pathetic it gets, that he can feel that he is alive. There’s a scene towards the end of the film, when Brandon has just about hit rock bottom where McQueen shows us his face as he reaches orgasm. It’s a twisted sight of torment and self-loathing. If sex in Shame is the only way Brandon can feel anything it is, conversely, the vice he uses as an excuse to continue not feeling anything at all. Even when Brandon's winning he's losing.

Then one day Brandon is startled to find that his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) has shown up unexpectedly and needs a place to stay indefinitely. Sissy is an aspiring singer with a natural talent and, like her brother, a natural pull towards self-destruction. Her body, we see in another of the film’s stark and unflinching scenes, mutilated from years of self-abuse.

Although Brandon relents in allowing her to stay, Sissy, being his sister, posses an emotional connection in his life and therefore a threat to its natural balance. He thus takes his frustration out on her, accusing her of being a child who constantly needs to hang on to people and rely on others to get her trough. He blames her for all of the things he hates in himself: he can’t let any meaningful emotional connect sneak into his life and she can’t live on the independence that exceeds her grasp; and while his scars are hidden and personal, hers are physical and on full, naked display. This leads to one of the film's most powerful scenes in which Brandon tells Sissy how he really feels, while sitting on the couch, watching a cartoon, facing away from the camera. Brandon is so devoid of anything emotional that McQueen doesn’t even allow us into the scene, instead forcing the audience to casually observe from behind. That's the kind of film Shame is.

Observing is what McQueen does a lot. Like his acclaimed debut feature Hunger, McQueen’s approach is to set his camera and look straight on, never flinching or looking away from what he is capturing. The dialogue is sparse and when it does happen, occurs in unbroken long takes. To edit would be to hide from the raw brutality of what is happening and offer an easy escape. McQueen offers no such easy exits and as an artist looks to capture the events that transpire before his camera without comment or implication, no matter how unbearable they become.

But if Hunger was more admirable for its craft than outwardly enjoyable, Shame is a fascinating and wholly realistic (if unpleasant) journey towards despair and self-destruction. It isn’t about sexual addiction at the end of the day, but about a man crippled by his inability to feel anything. Aesthetically every single frame is meticulously composed from the shame of its hero. It offers no indications of how he came to this point or any helpful solutions on how to overcome it. It simply watches, indifferently, as events happen on a journey towards tragedy and doesn’t try to interfere in the least. With Hunger McQueen made a statement. With Shame he’s made close to a masterpiece. This is one of the year’s best films.

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