Shame, the story of a New York sex addict, comes (no pun intended) loaded with plaudits. Michael Fassbender’s role as Brandon earned him the award for Best Actor at Venice 2011, and Carey Mulligan, who plays his equally dysfunctional sister, Sissy, has been similarly praised.
‘Great’ I thought. ‘Whether or not you agree sex is a genuine addiction, it’s an interesting topic; director Steve McQueen’s previous film Hunger was stunning and I love Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. What could possibly go wrong?’
Two hours later – parts of which had me begging, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, ‘Noooo it’s a sin, Glenn and Johann Sebastian did no harm to anyone’ – I’m not sure where to start.
As we’re on music though, I guess the scene where Sissy (Carey Mulligan) sings a seemingly interminable rendition of New York, New York is as good a place as any. Suffocating under the weight of its own portentousness, the only meaning I could glean was self-referential: a reinvention that takes itself ultra-seriously but in reality is as empty as the lives the film portrays. The Guardian’s Philip French, though, called it ‘a sensational, painfully felt slow version’ so maybe I missed something. But then he also described – and was rightly taken to task for it in the comments – Brandon’s colleague Marianne as a secretary. A disappointing interpretation as the only grounds for it are that she’s a woman.
While we’re on the subject of sexism, I wasn’t at all comfortable either with the ease with which every woman in the film drops her kecks. I’m not denying it would be great to be hit on by Fassbender, but even one character who found his approach creepy – or simply didn’t have time at that precise moment – would have avoided the conclusion that every woman is up for it, all the time. It’s most glaring in the opening scene (the woman is on the tube, going to work) and when Brandon gets himself beaten up (the woman is in a bar with her boyfriend). Call me an old-school feminist, but I suspect many women find a man staring at them on the tube – with no attempt to smile, or make conversation – or hitting on them when they’re with someone uncomfortable, if not threatening.
It also undermines the argument that Shame positions itself against porn. I agree it doesn’t set out to be erotic and, yes, it does have better sets, better lighting, better-looking (and, one hopes, better-paid) actors and, basically, a lack of money shots, but attitudes such as this are deeply dangerous. It’s a shame as it undermines the film’s undoubted strengths, many of which – unsurprisingly, given the director’s background – are visual. McQueen has an unerring eye for detail and Fassbender, as Philip French points out, is gripping and intense. (Although, let’s face it, he’d be gripping and intense reading a shopping list.) Credit, too, must go to Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography – the long tracking shot of Bandon jogging through New York at night is particularly stunning.
Brandon’s date with Marianne (Nicole Beharie) is another brilliantly observed and beautifully shot scene. The detail is spare and gorgeous, while the rhythms of a first date, down to the too-keen waiter and the embarrassment of – the man, of course – being expected to taste the wine, are perfectly captured. I don’t, however, agree with Philip French that, ‘we hope that this relationship will lead somewhere’. It would be too simple – and unbelievable – a solution for the messy addiction that McQueen portrays.
I also suspect that his approach to relationships is far darker than this. Personally, I didn’t find the choices the separated Marianne offers any more appealing than those of Brandon. A long-term relationship, dinner with someone with whom you have nothing left to discuss, is ultimately as empty as Brandon’s porn obsession and one-night stands. It’s a bleak view of relationships that is reinforced in the hints of Brandon and Sissy’s dysfunctional childhood, or the sleaziness of Brandon’s married boss. In reality, the only glimmer of hope that Shame does offer is in the title itself (cf. Edmund Burke’s, ‘Whilst shame keeps its watch, virtue is not wholly extinguished in the heart’) and the love, albeit troubled, between Brandon and his sister.
For me, this lack of empathy with any of the characters – and the lack of momentum it leads to – is where the film’s main problem lies. I simply didn’t care what became of them. It may be the point (mirroring the characters’ own ennui) but it doesn’t make for a successful film. Art needs to work on both the intellectual and emotional level; ideas on their own – however beautifully presented – are not enough. Instead, Shame felt like the product of a too-clever sixth-former thinking that a dollop of sex with a pinch of misery and a dash of bleakness equals profound.
Now I’ve got that rant off my chest, though, I’ve softened enough to point you towards Mark Kermode who, as ever, is superb, highlighting McQueen’s confidence as a director and introducing the concept of thanatos. But, sure as I am that it would be an interesting film to explore in a seminar, it doesn’t make the cinematic experience any better. Basically I’m back to where I started: the elements and ideas were promising, but ultimately McQueen failed to “infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing”.