The opening scene of Steve McQueen’s sophomore effort as director, “Shame”, is just beautiful to watch. We follow Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender, as he sits silently on a train powerfully flirting with a young woman opposite him. The whole thing is done with glances and knowing looks, and does not rely on dialogue, and you can see the two of them becoming more and more aroused and sexually attracted to each other. With Harry Escott’s gorgeous score playing over the mesmerizing images created by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, we are witness to one of the most haunting and brilliant openings to a film that I have seen in a long while. It is powerful stuff, as we continue watching these two characters both complicit in a fantasy that only ends when the young lady’s stop is approaching. In this moment, as she stands to leave, we are witness to a close-up of the girl’s wedding ring. It is as if she suddenly realizes that she was coming very close to making a mistake she would regret for the rest of her life, and when the doors open, she bolts. Brandon, who had been standing behind the woman very closely expecting a different outcome, takes after the woman. He chases and chases her, terrifyingly in quite an aggressive manner, but ultimately he loses her. The look on Brandon’s face is almost one of anger or despair, as if he had lost his prey.
“Shame” is a character study on the hidden life of a sex addict and it pulls no punches. It is emotionally raw and very painful, and its attitude towards sex is something it does not shy away from. We witness Brandon as his addiction slowly destroys his life and those he is close to. It is an incredibly painful film to watch, but it is also so rewarding. McQueen draws us into Brandon’s addiction and gives us no easy path out, the sex scenes are not to titillate us, but rather inform us to exactly where Brandon’s state of mind is at, as he progressively gets worse and worse and more self destructive with each act.
At the beginning of “Shame”, we see Brandon as a very successful businessman loved by his friends and colleagues, however once we follow him home we see a different side to him altogether as this is a man who appears to have nothing in his life except his addiction. This is immediately seen by his décor in his apartment which is absolutely bare, there is nothing on the walls and it looks sickeningly clean, it almost looks like it hasn’t been lived in. From here we are witness to the addiction in full flight as Brandon sleeps with prostitutes, watches online porn, and masturbates any chance he can get, however none of this seems to be fulfilling him. He doesn’t have a girlfriend and hasn’t for ages, because he doesn’t see the point in monogamy. Brandon seems to have his lifestyle under control, but when his younger sister Sissy arrives at his house unexpectedly, it is the catalyst to Brandon’s entire world crashing down around him. Something from their past clearly upsets Brandon and he always reacts towards Sissy in an aggressive manner, and it is her arrival that sends him deep into his obsession until it is too late for him and he hits rock bottom.
Everything about this film is good, I don’t think I could fault any aspect of it, but it is Michael Fassbender’s brave performance as Brandon that is the heart of the film. I am a massive fan of Fassbender’s work and I believe he is one actor that never portrays a false emotion, everything always feels so real in whatever he does, but his performance here is something to behold. He is just devastatingly good. When “Shame” was released there was enormous Oscar buzz for his performance but strangely Fassbender didn’t even garner a nomination. This is just shocking and I do not understand it, because as much as I loved “The Artist”, Fassbender’s performance in “Shame” was better than anything Jean Dujardin did in that film. Maybe it is the dark nature of the story that scared the Academy (I have the same problem with them for not nominating Kirsten Dunst for “Melancholia”, easily the best performance by a female last year), but it is a tragedy that Fassbender hasn’t been recognized for his work here. He is particularly good in the latter scenes when you can see how much pain he is in, and he starts to realize that he associates sex with pain. Intimacy is not something he wants and this is proven in a scene when he tries to sleep with a work colleague he knows and respects, but is unable to perform the deed.
Equally as good is Carey Mulligan as Sissy, who is another actor I am a massive fan of. The role of Sissy is a little out of Mulligan’s comfort zone, as she normally plays quite “goody goody” roles, but Sissy has such a dark and sad edge to her, and Mulligan nails it. It is so painful watching her trying to have a relationship with her brother, but constantly being pushed away from him, due to that issue from their past that both are obviously dealing with differently. Mulligan as Sissy has a standout moment in the film when she sings (Sissy is a part-time singer) a rendition of “New York New York” at a club her brother is visiting. She sings the song so slow, but it is so full of emotion (it resonates even more so once you have finished the film), it is absolutely mesmerizing. It brings tears to Brandon’s eyes as he “sees” his sister for the first time since they were kids. It is just an amazing scene.
What I love most about “Shame” are the little things that aren’t mentioned but alluded to, which is mainly the back-story of Brandon and Sissy. From little comments we hear from each of them, it is safe to assume that both of them were sexually abused as kids and this is what is holding them back in their adult life. Once Sissy appears, it forces Brandon to remember the abuse, which starts his downfall. The way Sissy deals with the past is much different from Brandon, as she seems to suffer from depression and suicidal tendencies (as we see she has many scars on her arm), as well as feeling of distinct lack of self worth. Brandon on the other hand, tries to forget about it by filling his time sleeping with women and watching porn, acting like he is in control of the situation. He continues down this path, blocking Sissy from his life, until tragedy strikes, and this is one of the most painful scenes in the whole film, but it is also this scene that starts Brandon’s rehabilitation. There are a couple of moments of dialogue in the film that seem to fit this theory, and one is when Brandon angrily tells Sissy to “Stop playing the victim!”, but the biggest moment is when Sissy leaves a message on Brandon’s phone stating “we are not bad people, Brandon, we have just come from a bad place”. Anyway, it is just great to see a film that is so rich in story and honesty.
Overall, this is an amazing achievement from director Steve McQueen (and I must now check out his debut film, “Hunger”) and I recommend it wholeheartedly. It is an incredibly emotional and painful experience watching “Shame” but it is a trip worth taking. Everything is great about the film from performance, direction, cinematography and score (I loved Harry Escott’s work here), it all just works, and the amazing bookends of the film, two scenes set on trains, are amazing and couldn’t be more different. I think “Shame” will go down as one of the classics in the future, it is mesmerizing and so richly rewarding.