Film review: Shame

by Fiona Rae / 25 February, 2012
Shame, opening this week, doesn't say anything new about sexual addiction, says David Larsen, but the acting and cinematography are excellent.

There are no mesmerising shots of human excrement in Steve McQueen’s new film. There are mesmerising shots of Michael Fassbender, but where’s the lengthy sequence in which his character starves himself to death? Fassbender and McQueen first collaborated on Hunger, the hands-down winner of the David Larsen “film I’ve praised the most that friends and family subsequently told me there was no way they would ever watch” prize. Their second film together – and McQueen’s second full-length feature (Fassbender will also appear in his third) – is on the face of it a far more accessible chunk of celluloid, but it is not out to ­capture itself a mass audience. Nor, as good as it is, does it entirely deserve one.

Shame is the story of Brandon Sullivan, a New York professional type (one of contemporary urban film’s favourite classes: “expensive lifestyle, works in office, exact field and job responsibilities unclear”) and a sex addict. I use this phrase despite its failure to appear in the film and its dangerous cargo of questionable assumptions, one of which is that Brandon’s behaviour will tamely submit to parlour psychoanalysis. For reasons both good (Fassbender manages to suggest oceanic depths beneath a forbiddingly cryonic exterior) and bad (the script has little idea who he really is), Brandon is not a character to wrap up in easy psychobabble. But “sex addict” tells you three things: there is a lot of explicit sex in this story; there is not one single jot of joy; and Brandon is fully in the grip of compulsions he doesn’t understand.

We now live in a world where certain highly codified types of (mostly female) nudity are standard fare even on free-to-air TV, but it’s a brave film that will show you a penis, and films that have attempted to bring those fearsome objects, erections, in from the pornographic hinterlands have not generally been thanked for it. Hunger made it clear that McQueen – a Turner Prize-winning experimental film-maker before he turned his attention to dramatic features – is capable of visual imagery that is at once astonishingly beautiful and astonishingly transgressive, but he carefully refrains from upsetting any apple carts here. Although we see Brandon naked, and having sex, and (gasp!) masturbating, we do not see any of the conventionally offensive body bits at any of the conventionally offensive moments; the film’s treatment of what might be mistaken for its primary subject matter is nowhere near as daring as Ang Lee’s in Lust, Caution.

The truth is that McQueen is more interested in Brandon’s pathological caution than in his equally pathological lust. Lee had the same focus, and it helped reduce Lust, Caution to a flat technical exercise. Shame works far better, because Fassbender makes Brandon’s reserve genuinely interesting, at once a trap we see him struggling to escape and a shield we know he’d be terrified to lose.

The film also benefits from the presence of Carey Mulligan, as Brandon’s needy extrovert sister; playing his equal-and-opposite makes for a much easier role, but she hits it out of the park. The other major contribution comes from director of photography Sean Bobbit (also a key presence in Hunger), who has somehow found a new way to shoot Manhattan. He converts one of the world’s most cliché-ridden urban environments into an externalisation of Brandon’s mind: sombre, geometrically regular, yet full of glossy, eroticised danger.

There’s no denying this film has nothing new to say about sexual psychology – or, really, about anything. McQueen co-wrote it with Abi Morgan, writer of The Iron Lady, and it suffers from the same core banality as that film: it tells us far too little about its protagonist, thus achieving the appearance of subtlety at the expense of insight. What Shame does do is showcase the power of fine acting and cinematography to transfigure the familiar. Hunger this is not. But bring on the next film from Fassbender and McQueen.

SHAME, directed by Steve McQueen. Click here for theatres and times.

Click here to hear a podcast with David Larsen and Guy Somerset talking about Shame; click here for more stories and reviews by David Larsen.
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