Steve Mcqueen’s Shame is a chilling and intense glimpse into dysfunction and addiction. The film centres around Brandon (Micheal Fassbender) who despite his surface-level appearance as a successful young New York bachelor – he is charming, good-looking, and has a well paid city job – is really a desperate and anxious man, whose chronic sex addiction has rendered him emotionally impotent and unable to form any sort of stable relationship. Brandon’s self-contained world of porn, prostitutes and one-night stands is shattered when his equally maladjusted sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up at his apartment for an indefinite stay and both sibling deteriorate further into their own dark vices.
Although Shame is about sex addiction, it is primarily a character study, and the issues of sex addiction revolve around Brandon, not the other way around. The film’s opening nine or ten minutes brilliantly sets up his self-imposed disconnection from others through his nonchalant evasion of several pleading answer phone messages. These sequences are cut between his blatant sexual pursuit of a married woman he’s exchanged but a few glances with on the subway.
McQueen’s use of tracking shots, long takes and lack of dialogue shows an excess of style and emphasises the importance of the film’s superb aesthetic composition and the subtle nuances of the actor’s performances. Even scenes that under another director would have been mundane, such as a jogging scene are given elegance and Shame’s imagery is impressive from beginning to end.
Throughout the film we are exposed to, as much full frontal Fassbender as you could ever want, and he should be praised for throwing himself so completely into role that requires him to naked as often as he is clothed. The film offers frequent unflinching, unglamorous and graphic depictions of sex, which some may find bordering on pornographic, but, for me at least, are never gratuitous, or portrayed in a grotesque manner. Instead, there is a cold and disconnected sterility to them, which seems to rather eloquently reflect Brandon’s own spiralling disconnection from meaningful human contact as constant need for sexual gratification consumes him. While public perception of sex addiction, particularly in comparison to something like drug addiction, is less than understanding and sympathetic, Shame strips away any misconceptions to show it in all its demeaning and debilitating glory.
Fassbender and Mulligan both give beautiful, harrowing performances that tread the fine line between deviant and sympathetic, and are wholly convincing in their visceral roles, Fassbender in particular gives Brandon a fierce, sexual intensity and bewildered melancholy that creates an interesting and multi-faceted character for the film to flow through. Combined with an absorbing script and incredibly clever direction from Mcqueen combine into an incredibly compelling whole Shame definitely is not for the squeamish, and the slow methodical pace is bound to turn off some people, but those with the patience and open mindedness to stick with it Shame will leave a lasting and haunting impression.