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June 2012


cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Hannah Ware, and Nicole Beharie

director: Steve McQueen

101 minutes (18) 2011
widescreen ratio 1.77:1
Momentum DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont


Steve McQueen's first film was a revelation. Comprising two visually arresting art installations and a dialogue-heavy middle sequence that held the film together and provided an intellectual framework through which to experience the installations, Hunger (2008) was a stunning meditation on grace and sacrifice rendered all the more powerful by its willingness to break new ground and experiment with different approaches to structure. Though widely celebrated as one of the best films of 2011, Shame is a bungled attempt to explore an emotion that, despite being common to most of our lives, seldom crops up in art house film.

The film begins with a scene from the New York Subway. Handsome, successful thirty-something Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is silently flirting with a woman sitting opposite him. He looks her up and down only for the woman to return and hold his gaze with just a hint of a smile. As the train pulls into the station, the woman rises and Brandon presses against her but when the door opens, the spell is broken and the woman flees. Brandon then pursues her up the stairs but manages to lose her in the crowd. His face a picture of irritated frustration, our hero slinks back down to the platform. McQueen then takes us on a tour of Brandon's emotionally empty but sexually hyperactive life: See Brandon hire prostitutes. See Brandon shag women in alleyways. See Brandon wanking to porn. See Brandon fuck... Fuck, Brandon, fuck!

It is not immediately clear what it is that we are supposed to take away from this cavalcade of carnal capers. Confronted by an aloof character that spends all of his time in pursuit of meaningless sexual congress, many critics concluded that Shame was a film about sex addiction. The problem with this interpretation is that it is entirely unsupported by the film's actual narrative.

In order to successfully argue against a hedonistic lifestyle, Shame needed to establish that Brendon's lifestyle is not only undesirable but also undesirable from Brendon's point of view. Generally, this is accomplished by suggesting that the hedonist is actually paying an uncomfortably high price for what little happiness his lifestyle affords him. Successful examples of this approach include Lewis Gilbert's Alfie (1966), which begins by emphasising the glamour and fun of a hedonistic lifestyle before revealing the hidden costs including pregnant lovers and trips to the VD clinic. Similarly, Federico Felini's Casanova (1976) begins with a series of fantastical sex scenes but, as the character grows older; his choice of partners becomes more and more desperate until he eventually winds up as a lonely old coot rubbing himself up against a robot. By acknowledging the joys of hedonism and then revealing the hidden costs associated with such a lifestyle, the directors of Alfie and Casanova attempted to demonstrate the self-defeating and irrational nature of a hedonistic lifestyle. McQueen takes a very different approach to the subject.

Shame not only fails to show us the upside of Brandon's pursuit of sex, it also fails to explore any of the negative consequences of living that kind of lifestyle. Brandon begins the film as a wealthy, successful and emotionally simplistic man and that is how he ends the film. Clearly, if Brandon's life is intended as a cautionary tale then Shame presents no arguments to support its intended conclusion. Simply stated, if you go into Shame believing that a hedonistic lifestyle is emotionally empty then that is precisely what you will see in the film. Conversely, if you go into Shame without any particular opinions about hedonistic lifestyles then the film will leave you none the wiser and largely unmoved.

While most critics have disappeared off down the 'sex addiction' rabbit hole, a more intriguing take on the film is to assume that its concern is not so much with the healthiness of Brendon's lifestyle as it is with the role of shame in disrupting Brendon's attempts to live a life that is as emotionally uncluttered as his Manhattan apartment.

Brendon begins feeling shame when his sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan) unexpectedly turns up in his apartment. The theme of shame is established by the way that Brendon returns home, hears someone in the shower and assumes that it is a burglar. Grabbing a baseball bat, he leaps into his bathroom only to find himself face-to-face with his naked and dripping sister. The spectacular awkwardness of this scene makes it clear that Brendon has no real idea of how to deal with a woman who is not a nameless sexual partner. Even worse, Cissy is Brendon's psychological opposite in the sense that she is just as emotionally incontinent and needy as he is emotionally aloof and solitary. As the film progresses, Brendon becomes more and more agitated by Cissy's public displays of emotion as well as her tendency to hang around his apartment, thereby curtailing his ability to bring home hookers or spend his time wanking on the internet. This growing sense of shame reaches a head when Cissy unexpectedly walks in on Brandon masturbating before sitting down in front of his laptop and coming face-to-face with a naked woman on a web-cam.

Shamed by his own behaviour, Brendon reacts to Cissy's presence by instigating a purge of all pornographic material in his apartment. Suddenly convinced that he needs to become more 'normal' Brendon goes out on a date with a co-worker resulting in an amusing scene where Brendon is forced to row back from the revelation that he sees no point in relationships. Puzzled, Brendon's co-worker asks why he decided to ask her out and (after a lengthy pause) Brendon responds that he heard that the restaurant served pretty good food. From there, we move to an awkward scene at a subway station where Brendon pointedly refuses to either kiss or invite the woman home. Awkward and utterly at odds with the predatory Brendon of the film's opening scene, this sequence shows how unfamiliar Brendon is with 'conventional' dating. Needless to say, this new departure doesn't take.

Much like Hunger, Shame is an ambitious attempt to break new ground. However, whereas Hunger broke new ground in terms of visuals and structure, Shame attempts to break new ground in terms of its emotional currency. Ostensibly, the film is very much a generic art house drama populated by a drab procession of attractive wealthy people who happen to feel a little bit sad. Set amongst open-plan offices, modernist apartments and soulless urban sprawl, Shame looks and feels almost identical to films such as Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience (2009), Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation (2003), Jason Reitman's Up In The Air (2009), and pretty much any French drama made in the last 30 years. And, while this highly generic feel is intensely disappointing, given McQueen's track record for arresting cinematic imagery, this lack of visual fireworks forces us to focus our attentions on a very specific issue.

What distinguishes Shame from the likes of Lost In Translation and Up In The Air is that it pointedly refuses to use the same psychological model as most films and TV dramas. Most film and TV writers create their characters using a somewhat simplified version of Freudian psychodynamics. In particular, they tend to be very fond of the Freudian concept of displacement whereby an irrational over-reaction to one thing is actually the product of a rational but socially unacceptable reaction to something else. For example, in Up In The Air, George Clooney's character comes across as excessively hostile to a co-worker who is attempting to force him off the road and into an office job. Initially, this reaction seems perfectly understandable but as the movie progresses and Clooney's character becomes more and more unreasonable; we learn that the true source of his unease is the fact that he has no social bonds and hates the hugely successful career that he has built for himself. Some critics have sought to interpret Brendon's sexual escapades in light of an unmentioned childhood trauma, but McQueen pointedly makes no reference at all either to Brendon's inner life or to the emotional life of his childhood. The reason for this is that McQueen wants us to focus only upon that which we can see and what we see is a man who is forced out of his comfort zone because he feels ashamed.

Given that most film and TV writers seldom move beyond their pseudo-Freudian models of what makes people tick, emotions like shame tend to receive very little dramatic coverage. This is somewhat unfortunate, given how much of our daily lives are devoted to managing the shortfall between the life we have and the life we would like others to think we have. The unfortunate thing about Shame is that while McQueen shows real courage in attempting to forge a new psychological model, he struggles to gain much traction on the question of shame itself. Indeed, had McQueen been serious about exploring the mechanics of shame then he should have devoted more attention to the relationship between Cissy and Brendon in order to explain why it is that Brendon cares what Cissy thinks when he manifestly does not give a shit about anyone else. What is it about Cissy that makes her so special? McQueen hints at some incestuous bond between the two characters but this bond is neither explored in any detail nor made explicit enough to help us understand any of the film's characters.

Shame's failure to get to grips with the psychological underpinnings of shame not only makes for quite a dull cinematic experience, it also goes some way to explaining why it is that so many critics have misinterpreted the film: If your aim is to break new ground but you do not manage to break any ground at all then it is hardly surprising if people just assume that you never wanted to break new ground in the first place. Even more problematic is the fact that, having failed to break new ground, Shame offers no real pleasures to fall back onů there is nothing particularly noteworthy about McQueen's direction and his depiction of a solipsistic and sex-addled lifestyle feels tame when compared to such ferociously unpleasant films as Marina de Van's In My Skin (2002), William Friedkin's Cruising (1980), or David Cronenberg's Crash (1996). Yes, Fassbender's performance is captivating but this is largely due to the fact that it is a very physically brave performance and his personal charisma lifts the otherwise under-powered script. Had these elements been stronger then maybe Shame would have been a better film but given how little there is of it, I cannot hope but conclude that this film is really nothing more than a failure by a director who is capable of so much more and so much better.

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