Cinema is awash with studies of addiction – drugs, alcohol, violence; all are widely covered. Sex addiction is less prominent, perhaps understandably so, because sex is a subject which tends to get audiences rather hot under the collar, and knowing how to handle it is difficult, particularly in a narrative where sex itself is the driving force.
Shame is British director Steve McQueen’s second feature, and his second collaboration with leading man Michael Fassbender, who here gives an intoxicating performance as Brandon, a well-to-do 30-something living in a New York City shot brilliantly by Sean Bobbitt. This is a city which seems almost perpetually in half-light; gloomy and uninviting. Were it not for a few pointers – including a bravado tracking shot as Brandon goes out for a run – it could be pretty much any city.
Brandon is well-mannered, charismatic, has a good job and earns a lot of money. But his life is a solitary one, a conveyor belt of sexual encounters stripped of meaningful human contact. His apartment is unnervingly stark; all glass and bare white walls, shorn of distinguishing characteristics, often shot from restricting angles. At times, as in the film’s well-executed opening which intercuts various scenes, the camerawork is borderline voyeuristic – unmoving and resolute.
Into Brandon’s isolated existence comes his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a singer with relationship troubles and nowhere else to go. Immediately there is a tension in the household – Brandon’s private life is invaded, his space is compromised, his sexual freedom is restricted. Their relationship is complicated, and although Brandon blames Sissy when his life begins to unravel, in actual fact her presence is exposing the fundamentals of his existence in unexpectedly clear terms, and he doesn’t like it. He feels shame. He understands how another might see him. After watching Sissy sing at a bar one night, an unpleasant reversal back at Brandon’s apartment affects him in a deeply conflicted way.
McQueen tackles the subject matter head on – he isn’t afraid to show explicit sexual content, and both of his leads are required to bare themselves for the camera. Fassbender in particular gives a brave, fully committed performance, and it is primarily on his shoulders that the film is carried, as technically impressive as it often is. But Mulligan is excellent too, and like Fassbender is enjoying a stellar period in her young career.
The film treads a fine line between being explicit and being excessive, and it only rarely moves into the latter territory. It’s easy to forgive the film its occasional overindulgences because in general its handling of the subject matter is reassuringly astute. There is lots of nudity, lots of sex, but it is very rarely erotic – this is crucial to the narrative’s success. The film’s only genuinely erotic set piece, meanwhile, is handled with excruciating adeptness.
Closing with a cleverly inverted sense of ambiguity, Shame is an effective film both performance-wise and from a technical standpoint. McQueen manages to make the film look both beautiful and somehow repellent, which may be the result of his careful handling of the s ubject matter. Though it ultimately doesn’t deliver the emotional punch it feels like it could have done, Shame is a mature, considered film driven by strong performances.