In his latest film, Turner prize-winning, BAFTA-winning, director-of-the-moment Steve McQueen takes a look at the world of the sex addict.
The sex addict in question is Brandon (Michael Fassbender, also the leading man in McQueen’s previous, first feature film, 2008’s Hunger), a thirty-something office-worker living in New York.
In terms of plot there isn’t much. The film really just follows machine-like Brandon: if he’s not wanking, he’s trying to pick up girls by leering at them for an agonisingly long time; if he’s not doing either of those then he’s just having a casual wank-free look at porn on his laptop. And if he’s not doing any of the above then he can probably be found riding the subway. There’s also a sub-non-plot involving his needy sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), and her sudden appearance at his apartment that carries an odd, incestuous undertone that isn’t subsequently explored.
To say Fassbender’s portrayal of Brandon has been lauded is an understatement. You’d be forgiven for thinking this is a born-again Brando. Not so. Fassbender stares his way through the film; lifeless even when he’s trying to be charming.
Brandon’s as soulless as his minimalist apartment, and what’s alarming is that this is meant to be the point. Fassbender’s not a bad actor, so he’s obviously been instructed to act as though dead inside. The idea is that this, standing revealed (often literally), is sex addiction in its true form. Really? To me, at least, it appears that monotonous Brandon would be just as cruel and soulless even if he wasn’t at all addicted to sex. It’s also practically impossible to empathise with a character so thinly-drawn, even if he is shown shedding a little tear to his sister’s overlong rendition of New York, New York.
Sissy, by contrast, is excellent. Not simply a walking issue like her brother, she possesses something genuinely human. Mulligan, in what may be her finest performance, imbues Sissy with warmth and vulnerability, and so when she hooks up with Brandon’s overeager boss David – James Badge Dale, who looks as though he’s had about twenty cups of coffee before every take – we actually care about what happens to her. With 2-D Brandon, we don’t.
Overall, Shame is an empty film; it’s an exercise in style rather than a hard-hitting look at a troubling addiction. But even stylistically it can get carried away with itself: there are scenes so self-consciously slow and measured they look filmed underwater. There are also too many knowing and calculated touches, everything from the word ‘FUCK’ being spray-painted on a wall where Brandon is, well, fucking, to giving him porn mags (in this day and age?) just so McQueen can impress us with his montage skills.
These are nothing, however, compared to the film’s two poorest scenes, both of which come near the end and are best left unsaid. They’re terrible; one bizarre and pretentious, one clichéd and formulaic, and both serving only to refuel a narrative that’s run out of steam.
Having said all that, it’s not without its merits. McQueen, coming from a visual arts background, has an eye for the perfect shot, and manages to give New York a superb, suitably cold, metallic feel. There are also some downright mesmerising scenes, such as the one long tracking shot as Brandon jogs through night-time New York, and the whole thing is carried out with a painterly attention to detail.
Unfortunately the film’s powerful aesthetic can only do so much. It can keep your eyes fixed to the screen, but what it can’t do is disguise the fact that Shame is ultimately an empty and superficial film, a character study that never really gets under the surface of the character it’s supposed to be studying.
Shame is showing now at Fact