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Non-Review Review: Shame

Shame is a masterpiece, a master class in cinema, and the perfect example of a director and lead actor working synchronously and seamlessly. The movie wouldn’t work without director Steve McQueen willing to push it as far as possible, knowing when to pull back and when to dive in, matched by Michael Fassbender’s fearlessness, throwing himself into a naked performance. (This is where I make a cheap joke about it being “in more ways than one.”) Shame is pretty much the perfect note on which to start 2012.

Stands out from the crowd...

The movie is garnering quite a bit of attention for its subject matter. Tackling the lead character’s sex addiction, and featuring the character’s wanton behaviour in graphic detail, one can understand why most of the chatter around the film has been about sexual content. However, I couldn’t help but feel like McQueen was using that hook to explore something much deeper, exposing the emptiness and decay at the heart of modern city life. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but McQueen’s film is a powerhouse exploration of twenty-first century existential ennui, the listlessness at the core of day-to-day living. It’s what Émile Durkheim classified as anomie in his 1897 book Suicide, exploring the scoial factors contributing to higher rates of suicide in urban areas. Indeed, McQueen suggests that suicide is another possible outcome of the same dehumanising urban sprawl. Like all addictions, the sex addiction at the core of this story is a way of dealing with it (or, to be more honest, a way of not dealing with it).

Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, a successful executive at a company that… does some vague social media stuff. He’s charming, successful and, in his own words, “responsible.” He’s the guy who puts his boss in a taxi at the end of the night and send him home. He lives alone, in a nice apartment with nice furniture, kept tidy. “I don’t depend on anybody,” he claims at one point, proud of the fact. Of course, there’s another side to that coin. “You don’t have anybody,” his sister retorts. For all Brandon’s charm and success, he has very little that he doesn’t physically own and that he didn’t pay for.

Low down dirty shame...

Despite the fact that our lead character is fixated on sex, he’s bereft of intimacy. He comes home to cold Chinese food and opens his laptop to a live webcam to a girl who knows him by name. “I know what Brandon likes,” she boasts. He masturbates at work. He uses prostitutes. He fumbles with random strangers out in the open in the dead of night. He stalks his prey through a subway station, like some sort of ravenous beast. The movie is candid about this, and McQueen never falters, never misses a step. It’s all as cold and empty and impersonal as watching beautiful people having sex could possibly be.

Brandon isn’t the guy you’d expect to be a sex addict. Like all addicts, he hides his habits well. Nobody suspects. Indeed, his boss comes across as a much bigger pervert, while Brandon is smart and polite, sophisticated. He listens. He’s not a bad guy. He opens doors for women pushing prams. When his prostitute arrives, he hands over the money and offers, “Can I get you a drink?” Later on, as one striggles to put her bra back on afterwards, he kindly asks, “Can I help?” Even at his lowest point in the film, he’s still something of a gentleman. In the middle of his own personal breakdown, he still asks his guest, “Should I walk you down?”

Best film of the year so far, bar none...

Like it is for all addicts, Brandon’s addiction is a coping mechanism. It just happens to be sex. It could have been cocaine, or alcohol, and the movie suggests he uses liberal amounts of both. It’s Brandon’s coping mechanism for simply living, for existing. He lives alone in an apartment, which he keeps meticulously clean and tidy. He’s so hygienic that he won’t even use his hands when flushing the toilet at work while masturbating. He’s good at his job, he’s respected. His boss confesses to “loving” him. Clearly the ladies respond to him.

He lives in a glass bubble. Huge windows take up large portions of his apartment. The rest is white. He surfs porn while working next to a window. That’s the thing about city living, nobody cares. Indeed, McQueen’s movie feels like a fairly damning portrait of urban living. More than Brandon, more than addiction, it seems that McQueen is exploring the irony of living in a city of so many million people, where we are somehow closer than we have ever been, but less connected in spite (or perhaps because) of that.

Fancy a ride in the elevator?

As a director, McQueen has a wonderful, almost documentarian style. He tends to let the film run, with long single shots. In doing so, the director manages to capture a piece of New York’s soul in celluloid. I’ve seen my share of films condemning the vacuous nature of modern living, but McQueen might manage to capture the most unappealing version of New York that I’ve ever seen, and he does it without ever seeming like he’s being manipulative. “I forget how beautiful the city is,” Brandon’s boss remarks at one point, as they enter a bar and take in the view. It’s the same view they see every day (and McQueen shows us regularly), but he makes it seem hallow rather than beautiful.

Two long shots (or two scenes composed of long shots) illustrate how central New York is to McQueen’s movie. One sees Brandon’s sister singing New York, New York, the camera alternately taking long shots of her and long shots of Brandon. It’s notable because it’s one of the rare times that Brandon shows any emotion other than frustration – and for that fact that he’s surrounded by “warm” colours like red and gold, instead of the sterile blues and whites and greys that populate the rest of the film.

A familiar song...

The second, and much more technically impressive shot, is a single epic tracking shot as Brandon goes for a run in the dead of night. Trying to get away from the sound of his sister and his boss having sex (because in New York the walls that aren’t made of glass are still so thin they may as well be), he jogs through the city. And McQueen follows him in one beautiful little sequence. And the city… just… keeps… going. He can’t escape it. It’s everywhere. It’s all around him. Even when he finally runs off camera, we know that it’s just deeper into the urban jungle.

But of course, he wants to lose himself. That’s what the sex is about. Throughout the film, McQueen cleverly connects sex with rhyme. It’s there in the mechanical beat of the subway at the start of the film, and in the way Brandon shakes up his sugar. Sex is mechanical. It’s about movement – nothing more. City life is about movement. Brandon seems to party every night and still wakes up at seven in the morning. Keep moving, don’t stop. It seems like Brandon works for some marketing or social media company, selling vacuous ideas to clients who would have dismissed them as filthy years ago. We never see them do anything, they just seem to sell empty and pointless and conceptual nothingness. This is a world where a YouTube video of guy snorting “his mother’s spice rack” is a media phenomenon.

Wake up call...

Brandon and his colleagues seem intent to keep moving. Don’t stop to think. When his subway car grinds to a halt towards the end of the film, it’s a moment of solemn reflection. He’s finally stopped moving, he’s stopped in that perpetual rhythmic motion. He’s allowed a moment to think, and a moment to appraise his life. It seems like exactly the sort of thing that he has been trying to avoid by losing himself in that addiction. It’s a biting commentary on the pace of day-to-day life, and the sense of constant movement that many urban professionals find themselves in. Living fast so that the emptiness doesn’t have a chance to catch up. It’s telling that his moment of emotional catharsis comes when he gets as far from the city as possible. He walks out along a pier as if walking into the empty blue yonder, but it’s still somehow a better place than the city. There, in peace, he is allowed his moment.

And, for all that hustle and bustle of city living, Brandon gets empty sex without intimacy. Indeed, he finds himself impotent at the one moment of true intimacy in the film. He works well in a bar, flirting with his eyes or trading in cheap promises (“you wanna get out of here?” – of course you do, you hate the emptiness just as much as he does – “I could take you somewhere…”), but he suffers when forced to engage in actual meaningful conversation. In another long-running take, McQueen allows the audience to sit in with Brandon on a real date, and we get a sense of just how numb city life has made him. It’s cringeworthy, and illustrates how much difficulty Brandon has with basic human interaction, despite his efficiency with sex.

His sister's keeper...

Of course, there’s a lot more to the film than McQueen’s powerful exploration of urban listlessness. Carey Mulligan is strong as Brandon’s sister, “Sissy.” McQueen never really explains too much about their relationship, and instead leaves the audience to speculate on their history. On his date, Brandon confesses to having a sister (despite his apparent dislike of her) but doesn’t discuss his parents at all. Unlike Brandon, Sissy does mistake casual sex for intimacy, trying desperately to find in it what Brandon uses it to avoid. She has a strange fixation on her brother’s bed, and seems disconcerting comfortable being naked around him. At one point, he uses a line on his lover quite similar to something he said earlier to his sister (“Are they vintage?”). It is not a normal relationship.

A lesser film would offer more. It would give us hints to allow us to piece together some of their shared history. Instead, McQueen allows the audience to reach their own conclusions, to try to work out how these two characters ended up in their current situations. “We’re not bad people,” Sissy suggests. “We just come from a bad place.” That ‘bad place’is left to the viewer’s imagination, a deft touch by McQueen, and one that betray great trust in his audience.

Going underground?

Technically, Shame is just as impressive. Aside from some of the beautiful visual compositions, and the meticulous balance of colour, the sound design also deserves a mention – both in how the sound is edited together, and in Harry Escott’s powerful score. It manages to sound graceful without ever seeming out of place, no matter where Brandon’s addiction might drag him. It’s that music you can hear playing over the trailer, and it’s beautiful.

I know it’s only the second week of January, but Shame is really something, and probably the first “must-see” film for those fans of drama. I suspect I’ll be talking about it in December.

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10 Responses

  1. Closing with a cleverly inverted sense of ambiguity, Shame is an effective film both performance-wise and from a technical standpoint. Fassbender is also perfect in this role and I really do hope he at least gets a nomination for an Oscar. Good review Darren.

  2. Excellent review, excellent analysis. I agree completely … what a powerhouse film. It blew me away.

  3. Just waiting for it to come to my area, if ever. I’ll probably end up seeing it on DVD. But I can’t wait!

  4. Great review, I just found your blog and I’ll be sure to be back 🙂 I’ll definitely be checking out this movie, it sounds excellent.

  5. I just recently was introduced to McQueen with Hunger. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m infuriated that Shame isn’t being released within 200 miles of me.

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