Steve McQueen's sophomore feature is 'an easy film to admire but a hard one to enjoy'
Turner Prize-winning video artist Steve McQueen’s debut feature was Hunger. A film about Republican hunger striker Bobby Sands, it focussed on an individual who was constrained in where he could go, what he could do and how he could express himself.
McQueen's sophomore effort is its thematic opposite. Shame concerns a man who lives without constraints. Essentially, this film is an exploration of western freedoms and our own world of instant gratification, where almost anyone in possession of a touch of charisma or a lot of cash can get what they want, when they want it.
The much feted Michael Fassbender is Brandon, a white collar worker in New York who has a compulsive attitude towards sex. When not sweeping clubs and bars for quick physical thrills, or shelling out on prostitutes, he trawls the Internet for a virtual fix, whether at home or at his virus–riddled work computer.
For all of the apparent human contact that such a young professional enjoys on the surface, in private Brandon is very much alone, a solitary, anti-social figure. It isn’t a situation he appears to be uncomfortable with, however – his one night stands are about one thing and one thing only, and it certainly isn’t an emotional connection with other people.
Into Brandon's hermetically sealed life comes his sister, Sissy – played by the equally feted Carey Mulligan – who is, in her own way, as emotionally fractured as her brother. And so the spectre of a relationship rears its unwanted head, along with the myriad burdens that it brings.
Nothing much is given away about the history of Brandon and Sissy’s relationship, though we’re to infer by their behaviour around each other – guarded, and frequently in states of semi-undress – that it was more than a little way from 'normal'.
The sex in the film – and there’s a fair amount of it – is never concerned with joy or affirmation. There is no tender love-making here. Rather, this is sex of the grim, emotionless variety. Brandon is someone who uses sex as a means of distraction from the demons within, and never lets anyone get close enough to expose his charade.
Reminiscent of American Psycho’s charming but sociopathic antihero Patrick Bateman, Brandon is an emotional cul de sac. His bonhomie with potential conquests – whilst suggesting that there might a nice, decent fella within – serves only as a mask for the pathological despair ripping him apart behind the eyes.
This makes it all the more remarkable when, during Sissy’s slow and poignant rendition of 'New York, New York' at a karaoke bar, Brandon lets out a few unguarded tears. With the exception of an anguished howl or two, it is the only expression of emotion that we get from him throughout.
Though more looser and open, relatively speaking, than McQueen's understandably claustrophobic debut, Shame is still a very formal film. Everything is precisely framed – a McQueen trait – so that our protagonist is always at the centre or on the edge of the frame. An extended tracking shot of a late night scene recalls Hunger’s more overt preoccupation with observing the action, rather than moving with it.
What Shame lacks is heart, and this is, of course, how McQueen would have it. Whereas the conversation between Bobby Sands and his priest in Hunger opened up two characters who were essentially mute before then, allowing them to reveal more about themselves and their motivations, there are no such revelatory scenes here.
It is not the expression of emotion that is the point of this picture. Conversely it is the repression of emotion that is the point. If there is a message, it is this: that in our modern world it is, perhaps, becoming all too easy to loose oneself to individual excess at the expense of one's emotional welfare and the healthy relationships that can sustain one through the dark times.
It's that old chestnut, but it's true: no amount of casual sex can make up for a meaningful relationship. Shame is an easy film to admire but a hard one to enjoy.