Review: Shame (2011)

I saw Shame at TIFF back in September and the film’s powerful images have stayed with me over the past months.* It is an intense, visceral experience, but even with only two films to his name we should expect nothing less from director Steve McQueen.

I wasn’t ecstatic about McQueen’s first film, Hunger, in 2008 (also starring Michael Fassbender). Hunger was technically marvelous and contained a great performance by Fassbender, but it lacked emotional and narrative continuity. The editing seemed purposefully and unwisely erratic. It was a film I admired more than I liked, although I understand the term “enjoy” does not apply to McQueen’s films. However, despite its faults, Hunger was definitely intense.

Shame takes the powerful imagery of Hunger and focuses all of McQueen’s technical bravado on one damaged individual, Fassbender’s Brandon. Because of this, Shame is something Hunger was not: emotional. It is a harrowing exploration of addiction but despite its explicitness (it contains extensive scenes of graphic nudity) and art cinema credentials, it works similar to a classical Hollywood film in the same vein as The Lost Weekend (1945).

Brandon is a compulsive sex addict who spends his days at the office surfing Internet pornography and masturbating in the washroom, and his evenings having sex with strangers and prostitutes and anyone willing to satisfy his insatiable urges. Brandon’s existence is born out of need. I’m aware there are people who do not consider sex addiction a real addiction (mistakenly, in my opinion), but Shame is a film clearly paralleling it with drug and alcohol addiction.

Brandon gets no joy out of sex. He has to live in isolation and cannot emotionally connect to other people due to his shame, thus the title’s aptness. When his erratic sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) crashes his apartment, his life is thrown into disarray. Her presence removes his ability to hide and forces him to confront his own disconnection to other people.

Fassbender’s performance here is fearless. He bares everything, body and soul. The result is powerful and affecting. There is a shot later in the film where Brandon is having an orgasm. Instead of pleasure, we see only pain in his expression. Near the film’s end, Brandon breaks down in tears during one of his jogs through Manhattan, overwhelmed by his own pathetic existence. There is nothing disingenuous in this performance.

McQueen’s filmmaking matches Fassbender's raw performance. Brandon’s keeps himself immaculately groomed and dresses stylishly. His apartment is a colourless, sterile environment like something out of American Pyscho. It makes sense that the film’s cinematography would reflect Brandon's outwardly attractiveness.

McQueen is wise to use long takes to let us see all the broken emotion on display in Fassbender’s performance. By refusing to cut, he refuses to spare us the most brutal moments.

McQueen is displaying the same formal command here as he did in Hunger, but the results are more human because Shame is interested in humans as personal beings, not political ones. Like with Hunger, here his film environments are controlled — the sound design, the colour palette, and the camera movements are all exact. However, these artistic flourishes never overwhelm the character. They are consistent with Brandon’s emotional arc and allow us into his world.

Shame improves upon all the technical promise displayed in Hunger and combines it with a story of human brokenness, the result being very artistic but also personal. This is simply an emotionally devastating movie. It cements Michael Fassbender as the claimant to Daniel Day-Lewis’s throne, and proves that Steve McQueen is not merely a visually-savvy, technically-capable experimenter. He is also a storyteller. His and Fassbender’s partnership has the potential to become a new standard like Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune's or Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro's.

Shame (2011)

Directed by Steven McQueen; written by Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen; starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, and Nicole Beharie.

9 out of 10

(*) Parts of this review are based on an article I wrote for the Sheaf regarding my trip to TIFF ’11, which included a discussion of Shame.