Friday, 20 January 2012

Shame Review

Days that are mindlessly routine in their execution, leaving behind them a miasma of confusion and repetition. An existence punctuated by wilful acts of pain – to oneself and to others – that result only in furthering the descent into nihilism. Such is life in director Steve McQueen’s New York, where sex addiction is a component of a society that, when trying to achieve something positive, is impotent. Shame, McQueen’s second collaboration with Michael Fassbender, is a bleakly explicit portrait of modern life – a need to consume, and in doing so, lose oneself – that, in many ways, finds itself sitting as something of a companion piece to Gaspar Noe’s equally devastating Enter the Void. Compelling in its presentation of utter destruction, Shame is a numbing experience.

 Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), is living the dream; a thirty year old businessman who happens to cut a dashing figure, New York is his for the taking. But, from the film’s opening moments, we see that this existence is one that is hollow and unrewarding, only made worse through Brandon’s distractingly compulsive behaviour toward sex. One-to-one webcam shows; prostitutes; magazines; office toilet cubicles – one way or another, Brandon silently pacifies his urges throughout each day. There is no context, nor explanation. Brandon merely exists, and in existing, he fulfils desires that only leave him alienated from the world around him. Not even with the arrival of his damaged sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), forcing his solo routine to deal with another (troublingly female) party, is the issue of sexual addiction explicitly addressed. The words are never spoken, and so the actions continue quietly and destructively.

 For Brandon and the people around him, emotion seems intrinsically linked with destruction, whilst sex, at least, offers negation. Nowhere is this better seen than in Brandon’s one, moment of potential sincerity during sex, an incident that is unfulfilled. Instead, it is swiftly swept aside for one more moment of guilty reduction, such incidents increasing throughout the film’s run until we become fully aware of just how numbing and nauseous Brandon’s life is. The explicit sex scenes of Shame may have earned it an NC-17 rating in the US, but these cold actions speak only of contempt, and are entirely free of any titillation.

 This emotional grinding, whilst clearly the thematic drive of the film, runs the risk of leaving the film going nowhere around two thirds in – thankfully, Fassbender’s excellent portrayal of emotional fatigue and self hatred, so much of which is realised non-verbally, ensures this period functions as Brandon’s personal nadir rather than the film’s, leaving the way paved for a suitably ambiguous climax. This is not a story of recovery so much as it is a snapshot of one man’s life in the city; why is he compelled to behave in this way? What is the story behind his relationship with his sister? How can the world’s foremost city be such an intensely isolating, nightmarish place? Aiding these uncomfortable questions is McQueen’s probing camera; a knowing voyeur that knows just when it’s time to step back and soak everything in, and then gets in suffocatingly close for the slight fall of Brandon’s face and shoulders in the aftermath.

As a result of this intense commitment to a single portrait, it’s hard to say whether the film truly achieves anything more in its second half that it doesn’t initially lay on the table, powerful as the portrait is. Whilst a Hollywood ending would be sickeningly false, what does occur is in some ways equally contrived, and highlights a lack of development in the character of Sissy. That said, the major thesis of McQueen's second feature works almost too well; an emotional endurance test, Shame isn’t the sort of film you’ll come back to any time soon, but it’s one you’d be a fool to miss the first time round. Just perhaps not with anyone you feel any affection for.