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Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)

January 30, 2012

Like his 2008 debut feature Hunger, Steve McQueen’s Shame is a film that is alternately intimate and distant; revealing but also reliant on what is hidden. Much of the acting choices made by stars Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, combined with the elusive screenplay of McQueen and Abi Morgan, allude to various possibilities regarding factors in the past of the characters that have perhaps influenced their damaged states in the present, but the film avoids outright confirmation so as to not make things concrete. Moments of potential sexual abuse or incest in the protagonists’ pasts are certainly possibilities made open for valid interpretation in the film, but to clearly state that single acts like abuse are the defining factor in the development of Fassbender’s Brandon’s sexually rooted compulsions and addictions – and Mulligan’s flaky, self-sabotaging Sissy – is to do a disservice to the complexities of human development.

In the case of Brandon, his damaging compulsions do not inhibit him from successfully progressing in the world. Practically the contemporary embodiment of a ‘yuppie’, his success in adjustment and control over his material life actually allows for his addictions to manifest in more elaborate ways, displaying what is arguably a more unique depiction in the canon of addiction-based films. His life is rooted in routine and regime, his bodily urges receiving habitual explorations in a way that keep them at a relatively safe distance from the more public aspects of his life. His emotions completely internalised, and a desire for meaningful connections virtually null, a convergence of events shattering to his world suddenly cause an interruption to his state of routine that allow his impulses to begin seeping into his life in a more prominent fashion: the confiscation of his porn filled work computer due to detection of a virus, and the unwelcome, surprising arrival of sister Sissy as houseguest for an unforeseeable amount of time.

Prone to theatricality, dependence, excess and emotional insecurity, Sissy’s presence and actions force Brandon to acknowledge consequences and invest his emotions, something completely at odds with the person he has become, causing damaging blows that contribute to his gradual unraveling as a man with a semblance of dominance over his inclinations. Brandon is revealed to be less in control of his desires and urges, and rather a figure bound to them. His addiction additionally begins to become a means of escaping the signs of emotional connection’s burgeoning intrusion into his life. Using a night of debauchery as a means to escape Sissy, his reliance on the physical sensations of sexual relief causes him to both drop his usually composed sleuth ways, actively and graphically propositioning a bar patron in front of her boyfriend in one scene, and journey down paths previously untaken: when his obtainment of conquests is repeatedly blocked, his compulsions have him enter a nearby gay club almost impulsively just for sexual release, despite no suggestion of bisexual leanings prior.

The film’s aesthetic captures a version of its New York setting that is not so common, avoiding any sort of emphasis on the city’s iconography and instead providing a strangely beautiful chilly depiction, rooted in low-key greens, blues and whites that extends to its portrayal of Brandon’s sterile, meticulously arranged apartment. Bold, bright colours only intrude into the frame when they are present in a particular location or scenario, such as in the gay club or in the nightclub where a dolled up singing Sissy performs “New York, New York” with a purveying air of fragility and longing. Brandon and Sissy are both Irish immigrants who moved to New Jersey in their youth, and that state’s skyline appears frequently and of apparent, peculiar interest to Brandon.

As Brandon, Michael Fassbender delivers a quietly intense but also ferocious performance, particularly evocative as his character’s layers of self-loathing and desperation unravel. She has a much smaller part, but Carey Mulligan is equally impressive as Sissy. One of the film’s highlights, shot in a long take style that is a recurring motif, is a raw close-up, sofa-located confrontation in which the siblings finally unleash their resentments in a blunt and brutal fashion, Brandon equating Sissy to a parasitic dependency. It is a remarkably uncomfortable scene that, much like the film as a whole, is rooted in a rivetingly intense evocation of sadness and self-destruction.

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