Sunday 15 January 2012

Shame (2012) - Steve McQueen

Shame is a disturbing, psychological exploration of sexual addiction, portraying the darker side of sex.  Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, whose intense, secret sex life is gradually encroaching on his professional and personal life with detrimental effect.  The hard drive of his work computer is riddled with pornography, whilst his relationship with his sister (Sissy - Carey Mulligan) is dysfunctional at best.  When she unexpectedly moves in to his flat, slowly his compartmentalised life implodes.

In Shame, sex is an activity done in the shadows, consisting of internet hookups and random encounters in a seedy underworld, uninhibited by race or even gender.  Indeed, its shameful secrecy is its very attraction.  Yet, though the film is undoubtedly explicit and full of nudity (especially Fassbender's....ahem), sex is often merely insinuated, occuring off camera.  That is until the film's climactic ending (no pun intended), though by this point the sex appears sad and disgusting rather than arousing.  Brandon is a sexual predator, a dominating presence throughout the film.  An early scene on the subway involves a sustained, sinister glance at a young woman - she initially responds with a smile, until his sexual intentions become apparent, her internal horror clear.  He lives in a cold, sterile environment, his choice of classical music a rather Clockwork Orange esque touch.  He is the brother to American Psycho's Patrick Bateman, minus the violent, misogynistic end.  For Brandon, women are sexual objects: a need, a desire.  It's telling that with the one woman he dates before sleeping with in broad daylight (and full view), he is unable to perform.

What's most interesting about the film is what is not said, repressed in Brandon's (and, by extension, the viewer's) unconscious.  There is little dialogue and the editing pace is slow and lingering.  The result is a film that leaves the viewer pondering and filling in the blanks themselves.  In an office scene, Brandon heads for the toilet and fastidiously wipes down the seat, though the scene ends before we see if he is masturbating or just urinating.  With Mulligan's Sissy, her character is depicted through her performance of 'New York, New York' - slowed down and filled with chromaticism to reveal, through music, her broken character (despite her American accent going awry). 

The relationship between Brandon and Sissy is the most obtuse of all though.  The title certainly refers to Brandon's sexual addiction, but could it refer to an incestuous relationship in the characters' past?  Their relationship resembles a passionate affair - one moment loving, the next violent - though its true nature is never made apparent.  Tragically, it is she who pays the price for Brandon's addiction, leaving him a broken man engulfed in turmoil.

Whilst this approach does have its benefits, the viewer leaving the cinema filled with questions, one remains unanswered - what is the root of Brandon's addiction, the source of his shame?  Viewers will have their theories, but McQueen doesn't make it explicit.  As a result, the film does feel somewhat unsatisfying.  On the other hand, perhaps this is the point of Shame - sex is an everlasting addiction that can never be totally fulfilled.