Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is an outwardly successful chap who wears nice clothes, lives in a cool pad, drinks in exclusive haunts and enjoys one night stands and flirtatious encounters on the subway. He appears to have it all and living a GQ reader’s dream. However secretive Brandon is crippled by an addiction to sex and wanking and Internet porn and adult chatrooms and romps with hookers – the whole shebang.
When Sissy (Mulligan), Brandon’s suicidal sister, shows up with no place else to go, the older brother is forced into an emotional confrontation he doesn’t want yet could well need. Sissy is very much the catalyst for events. There’s no doubting the pair’s relationship is odd, maybe, even sinister. “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place,” she hints at one point.
Steve McQueen’s second feature feels like the work of a proper director than his debut. Hunger, though pretty fantastic, on occasion, suffered from a lack of restraint. Shame feels tighter, more controlled and still packed with exquisite moments even if the subject matter is the antithesis of sexy.
The film presents New York in cold, minimalist tones. Blues and greys dominate the palette. This is a world of modern buildings and trendy bars. The spaces in between (physical and mental) are where the muck accumulates. The grand metropolis feels empty and devoid of the usual ‘we’re in NYC’ spark. There’s something creepy in its posh blandness which recalls J.G. Ballard’s work matched with a sense of near-gothic dread. Yet even then Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is nothing short of stunning.
So, does Brandon resent not necessarily Sissy’s baggage and problems, but the flickers of emotion they bring? He certainly resents being forced to care. Having his fucked up sister around reminds him how fucked up he is too. Their personalities play rival to each other.
The French refer to an orgasm as ‘la petite mort‘ (little death). It can have negative or positive connotations. Does the orgasmic release and its build up allow Brandon some form of spiritual service? He certainly enjoys these interactions rather than being simple mechanical motions drawn from the initial compulsion to act. Like all addiction and obsession it runs riot over his waking life. Even Brandon’s work computer crashes under the weight of viruses obtained from surfing porn sites. The boss asks him if an intern is responsible.
There’s nothing joyfully nihilistic here and there’s no sermonising on perceived moral failures. McQueen isn’t interested in ‘poor Brandon and Sissy’ platitudes or exploring the family background. This deliberate tact may open up accusations of false ambiguity as if too afraid to diagnose or explain away Brandon and his sister’s ills. Instead, we get a focus on a man’s rampant desire as well as night-time encounters with various ends. The shock factor comes from how he seems himself as some great sex magnet when really the mirror image is of a lonely sadsack. Watch closely the scenes on the subway at the beginning and end. The intense focus and unspoken play between Brandon and the woman. It’s as if he believes there’s some hypnotic power at work to get ladies hot and bothered.
Also, are we witnessing merely another sorry episode in their lives or does this represent a turning point? The scars on Sissy’s wrists and forearms are most telling, like the rings on a tree trunk. We’re certainly not meant to judge Brandon and Sissy. The sense of shame is for them alone. The individual psychologies of the pair are fascinating for all they do not tell us. Lingering assumptions remain exactly that. Is it a grand battle between la petite mort and Thanatos at play (if we want to get Freudian and speculative)? To quote Carey Mulligan’s wonderful, albeit, melancholy rendition of ‘New York, New York’: it’s up to you…
Not only does Shame announce the arrival proper of actor Michael Fassbender it further highlights what a superb actress Carey Mulligan is becoming. Their performances are revelatory showing complete dedication to their characters and to director McQueen.
UK Release Date: 13th January, 2012