Sunday, 15 January 2012
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.