Published Dec 01, 2011Director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender last teamed up for 2008's Hunger, which shocked audiences with Fassbender's gaunt depiction of a man on a hunger strike. Similarly, Shame depicts the extremes one will put their body through, except this time it's sexual addiction, with no satisfactory money shot in sight.
From the dark opening sequence of screeching subway cars matched with Fassbender's full frontal (set to the foreboding soundtrack by Henry Escott) to the first line of dialogue heard ("I find you disgusting"), audiences immediately know that suit-and-condo clone Brandon (Fassbender) will not take them on a romantic journey of redemptive love. Brandon's daily routine of jerking off in the office loos and boning a constant conveyor belt of whores is blessedly interrupted by the arrival of his baby sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), begging to occupy his couch for a while. Brandon's commitment to his sexual addictions clashes with Sissy's need for sibling support, and the batteries charging their bond soon begin to die like a vibrating donut left in the pants too long.
A sad film is a sad film ― you know it because you feel it ― and sometimes not understanding the subplot only heightens the stinging melancholy. Brandon and Sissy's tragic back-story is hinted at not so much through dialogue but via their familiar touchy-feely-ness with one another, and the intimacy of their eye contact. We must assume something horrible happened between them when they were younger. With Brandon's sex addiction and Sissy's history of suicide attempts, the unspeakable is the pink elephant in the room, and neither seems to have learnt from the past.
McQueen knows precisely where their borders begin and end, but isn't about to reveal their secrets any time soon. It is this, rather than the almost pornographic sex scenes or the brave infringements by McQueen's lens on his actors' bodies, that makes Shame compelling, heavy hitting and sombre as hell.
McQueen loves his long, unbroken shots, where pages and pages of dialogue are filmed in one take, giving Shame an almost documentary feel. Shame's picture quality has been cross-processed on the green side of the colour spectrum, making even the tender moments and delicate interactions look like rotting decay before your eyes.
Although it's jarring that he forced the Irish Fassbender and English Mulligan to muddle through American accents (why not set the film in London instead of Manhattan?), their performances are the bravest of their careers. They epically stagger through the sleaze of their characters with a raw crunch ― the best fodder for maladjusted adrenaline. And yet somehow they're polished in their incongruity, and it's that sheen that won't be overlooked come awards season. (Alliance)