Sunday, 15 January 2012

'Shame' review:

From Steve McQueen, Turner Prize winning video artist and director of the universally acclaimed 'Hunger', 'Shame' is a stylishly shot, cold and uncomfortable look at an empty existence defined by the nebulous disorder commonly known as "sex addiction". New York executive Brandon (Michael Fassbender) spends his every waking moment watching porn, soliciting prostitutes and masturbating in the work toilets. He can't so much as look at a woman on the subway without straying into a world of crass sexual fantasy from which the film offers no escape.

He is handsome, lives in a clean modern apartment and the women he beds are uniformly gorgeous yet his sexual encounters are framed as dirty and sinister. Brandon takes seemingly no pleasure in what he's doing, with sex reduced to a shameful compulsion and a barrier preventing the development of lasting relationships with people - who include his equally fucked up sister Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan. The problem is most of the people in his life - from his irritating sibling to his arrogant jock prick of a boss (James Badge Dale) - prevent this from seeming like too much of a loss.

Co-written with 'The Iron Lady' screenwriter Abi Morgan, the film's view on sexuality seems the product of deep, unhealthy repression - the sort of judgemental, prudish take on sex that we've spent the last decade or so trying desperately to move away from as public discussion of all-things bodily becomes increasingly frank. The way the film attempts to paint Brandon's acts as depraved is absurd at best. We're first encouraged to view his sexual appetites with suspicion after he asks a woman to undress "slowly". "What a sicko!" seems to be the message, backed up by Harry Escott's suitably ominous and rueful score. Later Brandon is shown to reach his spiritual, emotional and ethical nadir as he enters a gay sauna and is felated by a male stranger - a plot point which feels as homophobic as it does judgemental. Who cares where he sticks his nob so long as it's consensual?

Accepting for a moment that hyper-sexuality is a modern social ill and meeting the film on its own terms for a moment, I still think it's ill-conceived: a ponderous bore. McQueen favours long close-ups which, I suppose, might be said to provoke discomfort or even (and I think this is supremely condescending) give the audience time to think about what they're seeing. The effect is that we are often shown over a couple of minutes what we might have just as easily discerned over a couple of seconds - inflating the running time at the expense of engagement.

'Shame' is out now in the UK, rated '18' by the BBFC.


  1. Have you considered that coming to this so aware of, and having so recently seen, the same screenwriter's Maggie-apologist piece, that you were expecting to find (or at least more sensitive to finding) conservative ideology in Shame?

    1. An interesting question. Yes I have considered that but I don't think that had too much of an impact on how I viewed the film. Whatever I ultimately thought about 'Shame' I had gone into wanting to like it (in fact I like to think I do that with just about everything). If anything I didn't find 'The Iron Lady' to be all that conservative anyway - it walked a peculiar, uber-cowardly middle ground, attempting to be all things to all people. I don't know anything about Abi Morgan's personal politics, or Steve McQueen's for that matter, but 'Shame' seemed to suggest Fassbender should feel ashamed of his actions when they really weren't hurting anybody.

      Accepting for a second that sex addiction is a real thing: he seemed to be functioning addict - it wasn't effecting his job and he wasn't shown to be incapable socially when out with his boss - and the idea that it was directly effecting his sister was compromised by the fact that she was entirely annoying. It seemed like he didn't want her around because of that rather than because of his need to constantly watch porn or bed hookers.

      Did you like the film? I'd be interested to hear another view on it.

    2. Although it wasn't long before I realised I wasn't getting the masterpiece the ecstatic press coverage had promised, yes, I liked it nevertheless. Probably because my reading of the film differed from yours in several key aspects.

      I did not find, for example, nearly as much emphasis on 'should' in the film as you seem to have. I didn't notice, and cannot remember, the musical cue you make so much of in the "slowly" scene. Instead of saying the character 'should' be ashamed of his actions I would argue it's portraying a character who IS ashamed of his actions. Morgan’s past form on the ‘uber-cowardly middle ground’ and McQueen’s style - as evidenced in the admittedly much stronger Hunger - of long take ponderousness both form the basis of Shame as I saw it, showing rather than dictating to the audience, very much lacking in the moralistic judgement you saw everywhere.

      In addition I find your analysis of his behaviour as not having an effect on his life fallacious. His addiction (or if you prefer ‘addiction’) isn’t interfering with his life because his life is based around making sure nothing interferes with the addiction. You note that the people in his life are vile but don’t investigate the fact that beyond the arsehole boss and his ‘entirely annoying’ sister he has no-one. A blank walled apartment, a job so irrelevant that we don’t even find out what it is etc etc. His compulsion (despite your scepticism of sex addiction and without passing any moral judgement it is clear he does not enjoy what he does yet is unable to stop – this makes it a problem) may not affect his life during the run of the film, but it’s had a massive effect in the (imagined) past. That you ignore his failure with a woman he did actually have a true interest in…is a curiosity.

      Anyway you should take none of this to mean I thought Shame was flawless – certainly I had issues with it. I was just interested to explore how we could find such different things in the same film, especially since I read a lot of your reviews and generally agree with you on those I’ve seen and trust your opinion on those I haven’t.

    3. That's all very interesting, I have to say. Without wishing to sound like I'm giving a cop-out reply here, you make me really feel the need to watch the film again. Several friends have really liked it and made some of the same points you have, which leads me to think I may have missed something. I wonder too whether my scepticism about the condition of sex addiction has been a major determinant in my opinion of the film.

      Good point about him not being able to form an attachment to the woman he does like. Cheers for both your comments! I'll definitely post an article or another review when I get round to seeing the film again. Maybe on a different day I'll take a different view.