At The London Film Festival 2011 – Shame review
Another (not-so-)mini-review of what I saw at this year’s LFF.
(Steve McQueen 2011)
A genuinely mature, provocative film about sex whose candour and emotional authority are in stark contrast to its damaged central protagonist
What’s in a title? Steve McQueen’s second film, a study of sex in the modern city of anonymous hook-ups and Internet pornography – might easily have been called Addiction, or Desire. But, with inevitable, inescapable logic, the overriding emotion is Shame, as Michael Fassbender’s Brandon finds it impossible to let go of the embarrassment and guilt he feels over compulsions he cannot control.
This is a piercing, focussed character study about a man whose demons (refreshingly vague: there’s virtually no backstory) manifest in debauched-yet-detached sexual abandon. This is a film that takes place in the same cold, antiseptic urban landscape as American Psycho or Cronenberg’s Crash, a world in which – given the absence of true intimacy – only the briefest of physical couplings can break the surface of glass and steel.
Fassbender might look like a man in control – he is suave and witty, comfortable in his body, and a natural predator, those hawk-like features zoning in prospective targets – but Brandon is being driven mad by the constant goad of television screens, advertising hoardings and even, at one point, a piece of graffiti on which all of the words are in shadow except one which, of course, says ‘fuck.’
In a bravura opening sequence, various conquests are intercut with one that gets away, but the quantity of the former doesn’t mitigate against the one failure. Brandon has to have them all, and is ashamed by the intensity of his hunger – and, ironically, Hunger might have been another alternative title had director Steve McQueen not used it for his last film. In a telling detail, Brandon wipes a toilet seat clean before having a crafty wank at work; this is a man who finds what he does dirty but does it anyway. Even a spring clean (in which a jumble of DVDs, rag mags and even his laptop end up in a bin bag in the gutter) cannot cleanse his soul.
Into this set-up his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives, just as damaged but in more obvious ways – she’s not as adept at hiding the emotional repression as her brother, which of course only serves to make Brandon feel more ashamed. And he has to work daily with a boss who is, literally, shameless, a married man who makes terrible, vulgar passes at women who are altogether too classy to respond. Except, of course, for one: guess who?
What follows relies less on atmosphere than on narrative – the thinnest of threads holds out hope of a genuine romance, but Brandon cannot square the control he craves with the organic, let-it-go relaxation of a grown-up relationship. Whatever the cause, Brandon is stunted into adolescent self-loathing, and it cues a downward spiral into increasingly bitter, loveless sex. [The film’s one false note is to equate Brandon’s lowest ebb with a visit to a seedy gay pick-up joint, although McQueen deflects any accusation of homophobia by ensuring it’s not quite the lowest Brandon goes.]
With his characters saying very little, McQueen speaks through elegant camerawork and evocative sound design, the latter defined by a persistent, nagging metronome, the sound and fury in Brandon’s head as he longs for his next fix. McQueen is growing into a master of the long take, but in a brilliant piece of symbolism here the form is offset against a lead character without the maturity to handle the long takes of real life. Brandon likes his sex jagged and fragmented, and runs scared from unbroken reality – literally, in one bravura tracking shot, but most movingly in a stunning, intense close-up of Mulligan as she sings a stripped-down take on ‘New York, New York.’ The most revealing moment in the film is the one sex scene where Brandon tries to show some intimacy; McQueen tackles it a single take, but Brandon can’t get it up and ends up being the one who, metaphorically, yells ‘cut.’
Tagged 2012 Films, Festivals, London Film Festival, Shame