Remember when the term sex addict was only that excuse sleazy married business men used as for why they banged twelve hookers on their kitchen table while their wife was out of town? Thanks to multi millionaire golfers and biker bad boy celebrity-husbands, the issue of sex addiction has lost its taboo status and become a household name in recent years. With that said, it couldn’t have been a better time for Brit experimental artist turned experimental filmmaker Steve Mcqueen to release Shame (2011). After viewing Shame, I immediately thought that this was a film that will undoubtedly divide viewers into two very different camps: those who will find Mcqueen’s lack of restraint in the delivery of his methods an overly obvious exercise; tiring and uninvolved. The other group is comprised of those who can look passed the issue of Mcqueen’s overt autuerism, and find his bleak and downward spiralling vision of one of the most universal of human instincts (the sexual), a tacit and unmistakably devout example of Shame’s dedication to uprooting uninhibited emotions. Fortunately for myself, I was of the latter group, and found Mcqueen’s ‘fill in the blanks’ process an enjoyable and worthwhile experience, both challenging and rewarding.
Shame affords little time for us to familiarize ourselves with the sexually addicted Brandon’s (Michael Fassbender) world, and instead slings us along at his waist side (quite literally the film opens with torso and penis shots of Brandon as he walks around his condo naked) for an uncomfortable descent into sexual cataclysm. Brandon, a wealthy suit, enjoys the luxuries of being the prototypical New York City single yuppie: a greyly lit high rise art deco condominium, an abundance of alcohol, fine women and an insatiable sexual appetite. It’s between Brandon’s routine jerk off sessions in the bathroom of his work place and the discovery of the ‘smorgasbord of pornography’ on his office computer’s hard drive that the reality of his sex addiction begins to bleed through his smooth, GQ demeanour. When his eclectic hipster sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), unexpectedly shows up in his condo with plans to stay for an unspecified amount of time, Brandon’s sex dictated lifestyle is put in jeopardy. Mcqueen’s genius here is that Shame manages to be all about sex (the signals, the attraction, the act itself) but isn’t concerned with the euphoria of any climax. Instead, Mcqueen shows there is absolutely nothing glamorous about the shallow and wearisome nature of Brandon’s unsatifiable addiction, which Brandon uses as a means of escaping a troubled past that Mcqueen’s exhaustive direction frequently alludes to.
With excellent performances from both Fassbender and Mulligan, Shame resonates as a testament to Mcqueen’s ability to hone in on his actors’ most vulnerable states for convincing performances. Having worked with Fassbender on his debut film Hunger (2008) (which showed the most barbaric portrayal of prison I’ve ever seen) Mcqueen and Fassbender’s impeccable chemistry is second lived in Shame. One may even argue that if it were not for the incredible control and manipulation that Fassbender exhibits over his own emotions, Shame would crumble under the tremendous weight of Mcqueen’s heavy auteuristic ambitions. Despite these risks, Shame translates as a lonely and jarring picture and Mcqueen provides an alternate perspective of the capabilities of his prowess displayed in with Hunger (2008). Shame is completely unapologetic in its style, and this is Mcqueen’s calling card.