Film theorist Laura Mulvey famously once wrote of the “male gaze”, the idea that films, being predominantly written and directed by men, inherently unfold visually from a male point of view, lingering on the female form and typically denying agency to a fully-realised female perspective. Even Mulvey, however, might approve of how that gaze is appropriated in Steve McQueen’s harrowing drama about sexual addiction, Shame. This disturbing follow up to McQueen’s incredible debut, Hunger, places us at arm’s length from a man daring to indulge his id to the fullest extent, and primarily as a result of rising star Michael Fassbender’s searing performance, it might just be cinema’s authoritative take on the subject.
The film’s opening scene – a hypnotic and exhilarating carousel of images – provides us with an insight into marketing executive Brandon’s (Fassbender) life; blinds open, signaling both the start of the day and bed sheets that need cleaning from the previous night’s liaison; Brandon nakedly circles around his apartment checking his answering machine; he exchanges glances with an attractive woman on a subway train. This woman, who speaks not a word over the entire film’s duration, comes to frame the narrative and more specifically, Brandon’s choice throughout the film, to follow the self-destructive path laid before him, or to resist and endure in spite of punishing urges.
In a style consistent with his exceptional debut, this is a film formalistic in style; just as Hunger’s deliberate approach mirrored the drudgery of imprisonment, here the almost mechanical repetition of images creates a boxed-in world of routine sexual indulgence in which Brandon finds himself inexorably trapped. But don’t mistake its clinical approach for lacking emotional warmth, for Shame is a film very much concerned with matters of the soul, as its protagonist finds himself desperately searching for his own once his downtrodden sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes to crash at his apartment for an indeterminate period.
Much like last year’s stylistically superb yet narratively underwhelming Black Swan, Shame creates a nightmarish noir-esque world out of New York City, in which subways and dark alleyways provide a conduit for the respective protagonists to start losing grip of their sanity, while also trying to hold down a stressful job. Shame’s arena for these acts consists largely of dark alleyways and exorbitant penthouses, with McQueen directing the unsexiest sex scenes you’ll see all year, effectively de-eroticised by a keen focus on Brandon’s anguished, emptily aggressive demeanour, and a discomfiting, dread-filled score from Harry Escott.
Imagine it as a more subtle and serious version of the Sam Rockwell-starring film Choke, the only other recent stab at this sort of material; it’s grim stuff but also punctuated with perfectly-placed bouts of surprising humour, usually occurring as Brandon’s sexual proclivities are walked-in on or otherwise disrupted by either his sister, or his boss, who hilariously questions him about his work computer, filled to capacity with deviant pornography.
The scarce sense of humanity shines through during these exchanges – no matter how angry or embarrassing – with his sister, for despite their immense flaws as people, they are two sides of the same coin; he is an overly sexual being, whereas she is too emotional. The film’s psychological potency and its subtle narrative inflexions – usually based in small actions rather than words – raise questions; when Sissy sleeps with Brandon’s boss, is he angry because it’s his boss, or because, unlike him, she has formed a connection – no matter how brief – that was rooted not just in sex, but compassion and feeling towards another human being. A subtly revealing scene alludes to this later; Brandon has a dinner date with a female colleague, but can’t even sit opposite her as a regular couple would, instead bafflingly choosing to sit beside her.
The ending, meanwhile, is an intense and extremely uncomfortable sequence in which Brandon threatens to lose not only his own sexual identity in the quest for fulfillment, but the connection to the single person in this world that’s even remotely close to him. Shame is a remarkable film, not only because it features both Fassbender and Mulligan at their most vulnerable and literally naked – though the sex scenes aren’t as graphic as you might expect, not that it matters – but that it dares to confront social taboos with an admirable integrity, not turning incestual as one expected it might. Deeply unsettling and blisteringly intense, Steve McQueen’s sophomore feature mines smart psychology and a magnificent, Oscar-worthy performance from Michael Fassbender for all they’re worth.
Shame begins a limited U.S. release on Dec 2nd, and opens a month later in the UK on Jan 13th, 2012