Shame is Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender’s follow-up to Hunger. While their earlier film looked at political and/or religious fundamentalism, Shame looks at another form of obsession – sex addiction.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a sex addict, living in New York in a bland, minimalist apartment, with a high-powered though anonymous job. Fearful of emotional attachments of any kind, Brandon prefers one-night stands, porn and sex with prostitutes. When his troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes uninvited to stay in his apartment, Brandon finds that his solo, emotion-free lifestyle is becoming harder and harder to maintain.
When The Long Weekend, Billy Wilder’s still-disturbing 1945 film about alcoholism, came out the figure of the helpless drunk was merely a figure of fun. The fact that alcoholism might be a disease was not considered. Shame looks set to do the same thing for sex addiction. McQueen and Fassbender’s main aim is to look at sex addiction seriously and expose it as the disease that it is, making Shame a film that is trying to raise awareness. Aside from that, McQueen maintains a level of subtlety throughout the film, refusing to judge Brandon or to make him entirely sympathetic. The film is also open to a number of interpretations. Is Brandon sex addiction a result of an earlier childhood trauma or is it merely a figment of a wider greed inside the current capitalist system. Shame is, by its very nature, an enigmatic film, but its refusal to adopt a stance, any stance, makes it a somewhat unrewarding film.
The major problem with Shame is that it suffers from a very conventional storyline, one of entrapment and a bid for escape. Brandon is clearly trapped by his inability to communicate with people on an emotional level. Conversations with his work colleagues are nothing but macho bravura and when he tries to develop a relationship with a woman, he is almost hopelessly shy and awkward. The arrival of his sister marks the beginning of Brandon’s attempts to nurture relationships that are not based on sex, with the obstacles being his shyness, inexperience, his addiction and the shame and self-loathing that soon follows any hedonistic fulfilment. Ultimately, Brandon may learn and grow, though the film leaves it up to its audience to decide whether Brandon really has overcome his addiction or not.
Due to the film’s conventionality, it is difficult to be surprised or swept up by anything that happens in the film. Scenes that should be moving can be seen coming from a mile away, while the more tabloid-baiting ‘shocking’ sequences are tamed somewhat by a narrative dedicated to explaining why they are so necessary. Other moments suffer from McQueen’s own artistic preoccupations, not unlike Hunger. McQueen employs several techniques, ones that were new in the 1960s, but which are quite transparent today, such as remaining focussed on Brandon’s tangled bed linen long after he has left the frame. The film is also full of slow-panning shots following Brandon, usually naked, as he wanders around his apartment. While they may do something for the film’s tone and pacing, they feel like rather mechanical shots put in only because of a pre-ordained aesthetic. In fact, McQueen is much more able during the more apparently spontaneous moments such as a beautiful and cinematic long take showing Brandon running down New York streets at night or a fixed shot of a restaurant date between Brandon and Marianne (Nicole Beharie), recalling a similar sixteen-minute take from Hunger, both of which work because they do not feel so controlled.
Though the performances are undeniably very good with Fassbender obviously a standout, the film itself fails to cover any new ground or to be surprising, shocking or particularly moving. McQueen’s tendency towards clinical and enigmatic filmmaking seems a poor fit for both the subject matter and the storyline. Though it is well made and sometimes beautiful, Shame is a well-intentioned and convincing film that just doesn’t manage to be as memorable or thought provoking as it should have been.