Shame (2011)

14 January 2012

If you're inclined to read about films before seeing them, few pieces will prepare you for a work as well as Reverse Shot co-founder Michael Koresky's review of Shame, Steve McQueen's follow-up to his 2008 debut feature, Hunger. That film was a minimalist and curious de-politicisation of a highly charged subject matter, namely Bobby Sands's 1981 hunger strike. Co-scripted with McQueen by Abi Morgan - who also worked on The Iron Lady - Shame concerns Brandon (Michael Fassbender), an Irish-born Manhattanite who, outside of pitching successful deals in his immaculate white-collar job, feeds a sex addiction with an endless stash of top-shelf mags, DVDs, live webcam sex and public fucks with all-too-willing women. Often intriguing to look at, the film is mostly risible fluff, its vacuity disguised by a solemnity begging to be championed by the intellectually impoverished as a work of deep profundity.

Koresky's review points out the film's flaws, and I have no need to repeat them here. What is worth noting, though, is his observation - one which applies equally to Hunger - concerning "McQueen’s penchant for constructing affecting images that have no basis in reality. A conceptual visual artist, he focuses on the whole rather than the details". This is largely true.

Of Hunger, I wrote in February 2009 that it was "a typical debut film from an artist; strong visually, but no rhythmic balance, and too loose and lacking focus in terms of narrative momentum. It feels fatally casual, as if the script was still in its 'ideas' phase when production began." Additionally: "though I liked its styles in themselves, they seemed to be competing against each other. On the one hand there was that quiet and disquieting static camera and then the roaming Steadicam; in between we've got jump-cuts lending momentum [...] It came off as a bit gimmicky when all thrown in together, as if McQueen has little hope in making another film. Maybe his next one will be more confident."

Unfortunately, this is not the case. To McQueen's preposterous idea that characters can emerge from thin air and be understood without at least some understanding of the social layers in which they move, we ought to add his uneven and deeply annoying decision to make set-pieces out of certain conversations by filming them in a single take.

Two such conversations take place in Shame: the first takes place in a restaurant, between Brandon and co-worker Marianne (an excellent Nicole Beharie), and the second is a close-up-from behind two-shot of Brandon and younger sibling Sissy (Carey Mulligan), whose name is a possible triple entendre, conjuring the conceptual "sister" whilst also acting as a kind of subliminal, derogatory prod to Brandon regarding his ongoing evasion of all responsibility for her.

As with that 17-minute take in Hunger, of a conversation between Sands and a priest, there is no apparent reason - nor inherent strength - in choosing to disrupt the narrative with such an explicitly longer shot-length. Presumably, it's to lend both plausibility and intensity to otherwise banal scenes, to heighten their awkwardness and, perhaps, even to show Brandon with some complexity (Fassbender is excellent in both scenes).

But their self-conscious inclusion draws attention to McQueen's uneven control of rhythm. Such self-consciousness quickly becomes grating; towards the end of the film, a Noé-esque gay nightclub scene - the red lighting of which lends it its deliberate seediness - is followed by a shot in which Brandon, talking on the phone, is seen only in a dull surface that distorts his reflection. Such symbolism is the logical conclusion of an approach that sees Brandon's whole lifestyle painted in strokes so broad it reeks of caricature.

His boss David (James Badge Dale) is a ludicrous concoction. We're presumably meant to find him both pitiful and pitiable, but his dialogue betrays less these characteristics than it does the writers' inclination towards cliché and stereotypes. That David fucks Brandon's sister - or that she fucks him - is only to be thanked for providing Brandon's character with the impetus to go for a midnight run along a Manhattan street, which might be the most absorbing shot of the film, a smooth dolly alongside Fassbender running with artful grace.

It seems a might more purposeful than those early shots of Fassbender/Brandon walking without purpose around his flat, his thick flaccid cock dangling artfully and gracefully, his flesh bared so that McQueen can churn out empty art-school phrases such as "Brandon is one of us". Alas, Brandon remains a concept with no grounding in material life, better suited to some obscure gallery piece "exploring (no doubt) the tensions between personal and social space" and so on.

In introducing my review of The Tree of Life last July, I said "one person’s art is another’s wank". In this instance, the wanking is also literal.