Release date: December 2, 2011
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: Abi Morgan & Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie
Shame is a film about sex. Yes, sex. There’s plenty of it and there’s really no shame in saying it aloud. Steve McQueen does not take the topic lightly however — choosing to show the raw realism that comes with sexual addiction, rather than a gratuitous fuckfest that one might see in a Hollywood feature or an average porn flick.
Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) is a sex addict. He goes through the daily motions that most do, but also includes a collection of personal recreational activities. Amongst these are mentally undressing women on the subway, surfing porn sites during work hours, masturbating in the office bathroom, and an abundance of public sexual encounters. He lives alone in his apartment, never keeping company longer than one night, in an attempt to keep his personal life entirely to himself. It isn’t until his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) unexpectedly drops by that his world is disrupted, leaving him to question himself and the shameful lifestyle he leads.
If you’re already turned off by what you’re reading, Shame may not be a film that you’ll want to see. It’s well-deserving of its NC-17 rating and holds its title proudly, featuring plenty of sex scenes and both male and female full-frontal nudity. While this might sound like borderline pornography, I can assure you it’s not. The film’s sexual content isn’t particularly erotic, and will likely leave people feeling uncomfortable rather than aroused.
Much like in his previous film Hunger, McQueen doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life. He places the audience in a purely voyeuristic position, using an immense amount of long shots to enhance the somber mood of the film. Even the use of full-frontal nudity does not go to waste, as it shows us Brandon at his most vulnerable — both physically and emotionally. With each scene, we struggle to find some comfort in this world of awkward encounters and sexual abundance, much like Brandon himself does.
Shame doesn’t bring any easy answers to the table and there is plenty that goes without saying. A minimal use of dialogue allows the actors to use their expressions to convey this struggle and shows that actions can, in fact, say much more than words. Certain audience members may be turned off by the minimalistic nature, which also includes the film’s ambiguous standing and slow pacing. However enigmatic the film, it offers a stimulating reflection for those willing to embrace an unconventional experience.
This year has been remarkable for Michael Fassbender, but his role as Brandon is what truly showcases his superb talent. He plays the sort of man you’d want to introduce, not to your parents, but to your bed (and maybe your floor or shower as well). Throughout the film, there are the slightest changes in his expressions that show us the downward spiral that his character is taking. Something as simple as the look in his eyes — whether it’s staring at a woman with lust from across the room or watching his sister perform on stage for the first time — allows us to enter Brandon’s world, if only just for one minute. Fassbender’s pitch-perfect acting guides the film and his dedication to this character proves to be one of the finest performances of the year.
Carey Mulligan also brings a stellar presentation of her talent to Shame. Taking a break from her usual characters, she dives into her role as Sissy, embodying this mess of a woman perfectly. Sissy’s character almost feels unusual next to Brandon, as her feelings are always showcased — be it sorrow or joy. Much like Fassbender, so much can be said with simple expressions from Mulligan. One of the most notable scenes, in which she sings a haunting rendition of “New York, New York”, is absolutely mesmerizing, as McQueen keeps the camera focused on her face for most of the song.
Steve McQueen’s Shame is a powerhouse of a film. While some may not be entranced by this masterful character study, many will find themselves thinking about this devastatingly beautiful piece of cinema long after the credits roll.