Review: Shame

Shame - Michael Fassbender

Michael Fassbender continues his quest to star in every new release, as director Steve McQueen returns for his first film in three years. The superbly acted piece is every bit as confronting as his previous work, in this snapshot of a sex addict in a cold world.

Shame (2011)

Shame poster - Australia

Director: Steve McQueen

Writer(s): Abi MorganSteve McQueen

Runtime: 101 minutes

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan

Distributor: Transmission

Country: US

Rating: Better Than Average Bear (?)

More info

Dear Penthouse,

I never thought this kind of thing would happen to me. My name is Brandon (Michael Fassbender), and I am a successful and attractive man living in New York. I am a sex addict, and have random encounters with women every night. When women are not available, I satisfy myself using the Internet, chat rooms or anything that happens to be handy. You’ll never believe what happened when my sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) came to visit, and my otherwise ordered world gets turned into chaos. It may have something to do with a troubled childhood that neither of us are completely willing to face.


Naked In the Big City

Steve McQueen‘s visually striking follow-up to Hunger, reuniting him with leading man Fassbender, presents itself with the same believably farcical distance that a Penthouse letter might. We are offered a glimpse into a world via a voyeuristic window, as tellingly indicated by the repeated act of the completely naked Fassbender circling his pristine apartment, and the film is not without a large dose of black humour. In the same way that American Psycho‘s cold and unforgiving portrait of a city gave rise to a slick and increasingly ridiculous series of violent encounters, Shame‘s motif is a series of escalating pornographic episodes. These sequences, from casually picking up a woman at a bar to an acrobatic anonymous threesome, are the stuff of fantasy letters to skin mags, the kind that most people dream of in their frank confessions. Yet as Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) and McQueen’s script is quick to point out, there is a downside to this lifestyle.

Although highly sexually charged, relying on masturbation at work and home or even prostitutes, there is no passion or eroticism in his actions. They are the machinations of routine, and we never get a sense that Brandon is experiencing any pleasure from any of this. So fragile are these routines that when any change enters his life, he begins to feel it spiral outwards. When his work computer is taken away to be “cleaned”, later revealed to be the result of obsessive exploration of porn, Brandon’s professional persona is compromised. Even more compromising is the presence of his sister Sissy, who not only figuratively represents the erosion of his carefully constructed reality and is an intruder into his life, but quite literally represents the past he would rather suppress. In one scene, when Sissy accidentally walks in on Brandon masturbating, his ultimate reaction is a mixture of a child with his favourite toy taken away, and psychotic rage. On the flip side, Brandon is unable to sexually perform with the one woman that he feels any genuine affection for.

Shame - Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan

The slow pace to Shame is not so much a narrative as a series of contemplative set pieces to increasingly swelling music. McQueen treads the fine line between observation and soft core pornography, and the aforementioned threesome possibly hits the heights of this ridiculousness. Yet this too mirrors Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, numbing audiences to the increasingly nihilistic acts of sexual activity just as much as Patrick Bateman’s final acts of ultra violence leave the viewing wondering “Is that it?”. This is no cautionary tale about the increasingly casually sexualised entertainment we are subject to, but rather a character study of Fassbender’s Brandon.

Fassbender gives one of his bravest performances to date, and not simply because he lets it all quite literally hang out. Brandon’s most intimate moments are exposed, and this is undoubtedly one of Fassbender’s most emotionally fragile creations to date. It is just a shame he has been largely overlooked for individual awards this season. Similarly, Mulligan is unfraid of frumpiness in this part, finally liberating her from the meek mouse roles she has been stuck in of late. Both actors allow us to get under the surface long enough to get some degree of closeness, but the film keeps us at arm’s length, ensuring that this is an observational capsule of another life led in a large anonymous city.

Shame is a raw and emotionally confronting piece that uses sex to explore the scarred lives of two characters lost in the big city.

Shame is released in Australia on 9 February 2012 from Transmission.