Film: Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)

Fassbender and McQueen are reunited in this stylish and unrelenting look at the most chilling businessman since American Psycho

-Kathryn Bromwich

Everyone likes sex. Can sex addiction really be that bad? After all, the South Park episode about it was pretty funny. Steve McQueen’s Shame takes a lengthy and mature look at the topic, with considerably less jokes about Tiger Woods, but rather a lot more nudity.

Michael Fassbender stars as Brandon. A handsome, thirty-something executive in Manhattan, he seems like exactly the kind of bland, one-dimensional man Carrie Bradshaw might sleep with: playing the field, having some fun with the ladies. And, in a way, that is essentially what he is, but taken all the way out to the furthest extreme into quasi-psychopathological behaviour. He is shown in a series of seedy encounters which get progressively darker and more desperate. One day, his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) appears unannounced in his flat, and her arrival disrupts his well-entrenched routines. She likes vintage clothing, lives ‘here and there’, and has a penchant for self-harm: a troubled little-girl-lost who is trying to make it as a singer in the big city. Outwardly she is the opposite of Brandon, whose self-control appears to be complete, but as the film progresses, the similarities become more and more accentuated.

The film begins by showing off the glamorous side of Brandon’s life: he lives in an expensive flat, is undoubtedly ‘successful’, and beautiful women find him irresistible. Gradually, we come to understand that the attractive women, for him, are interchangeable with porn, masturbation, and pretty much whoever is around. Throughout, it feels as if sex is not an entirely joyful experience for him but, rather, functional. His character is reminiscent of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, unmoved by the ties of family, uninterested in relationships (“What’s the point? Especially in this day and age”). With his crisp suits, immaculately tidy flat, and not a hair out of place, he is threatening in the extreme.

Amour sans amour, rien n’est plus triste: Brandon can only connect, momentarily, with strangers and prostitutes. A possibility of love is briefly offered by his pretty colleague Marianne, played by Nicole Behari. Not really knowing each other, they go on a date, in a scene which would be funny if it were not so deadly serious. In a rom-com, Marianne would be the one who changes Brandon and finally calm him down. In this film, however, he shows himself to be incapable of emotional intimacy and relationships, driving her away as soon as he becomes attached to her.

With its unflinchingly graphic portrayal of the sex scenes and controversial subject matter, Shame is simultaneously affecting and seedy. Belying the director’s origins in fine art, the takes are long, nuanced, beautifully sketched out. The effect is one of memorable, visually arresting snapshots: on the underground, in the restaurant, Brandon jogging, Sissy singing. The entire film is strangely similar to Nicolas Refn’s Drive: it stars Carey Mulligan and a tall man with a quiff, has a brilliant soundtrack, and is about an obsession which gives rise to an inability to face reality and the emotions that go with it. What is surprising is that, despite the overt violence in Drive, it is Fassbender’s character who comes across as the more disturbed and unsettling of the two.

In lesser hands, the film could have been a disaster. Fortunately, McQueen directs masterfully and the cast is exceptional. Fassbender’s features are handsome enough for him to be easily charming, but cold enough to make him seem detached and unemotional. He possesses a cruel kind of beauty, and plays the role with a mix of charisma and danger. Mulligan, too, is utterly captivating. Brandon rebukes Sissy time and time again, berating her for her failures, her financial troubles and her instability, but she becomes the closest thing the film has to a moral centre.

Some critics have seen the film as a grand narrative about how difficult it is to have meaningful relationships in the city, that perhaps Brandon is en embodiment of the Modern Condition. That is one interpretation, but Shame appears to be subtler than that. In spite of everything, the film’s attitude towards romance is not an overtly cynical one: love is presented as something potentially redemptive that, for Brandon at least, is out of reach. In an interview with The Guardian, Fassbender states that Brandon has “a sort of yearning, it’s not like he’s cold on the inside, he’s actually very emotionally aware and active, but it’s locked away.” His anguish as he looks at Marianne is palpable and sincere, yet the character is never likeable enough for the viewer to feel a duty to sympathise with him. And because of this, he is one of the most interesting, morally ambiguous characters I have recently seen in a film.

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