Their last cinematic collaboration was all about the ‘hunger’, now director Steve Mcqueen and rising star Michael Fassbender hot off the heels of his portrayal of Magneto in X Men First Class, aim for the polar opposite. A portrait of a mentally unravelling sex addict would instantly trigger the cynics into thinking this is just the arthouse interpretation of pornography. But nothing quite prepares you for how raw and unsettling ‘Shame’ proves to be, which may leave the male contingent of audiences feeling rather emasculated by the harrowing experience.
Adding a seedy layer to the high life of downtown Manhattan in the process, Mcqueen sets his stall out early. Brandon (Fassbender), living in a rather isolated apartment is the epitome of a cold and distant character. The circular narrative effectively portrays the vicious nature of how he has shaped his day to day life. Whether its anonymous sex with callgirls, the material to date that swamps his office computer or the steely alebit passive manner he shows to his work colleagues and his career in general, he is consumed by his addiction.
The idea of human connection and real intimacy doesn’t seem like an ideal that Brandon wants to buy into, enhanced by his attempts to woo Marianne (Nicole Beharie). Only the idea of privacy appeals to Brandon, but he doesn’t anticipate the invasion that comes courtesy of his ‘damaged goods’ singing sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan in a real ‘outside the box’ role) who ends up crashing on his couch. Despite the apprehension he shows towards her being back in his life, Sissy sensing her brother is in trouble tries to shake a sense of reality into Brandon’s life.
Considering how far Mcqueen pushes the boundaries with the material, the performances have to be believable. Thankfully, Fassbender and Mulligan are on remarkable form. Mulligan is an inspired piece of casting, with her sharp tongue and erratic way of living being the perfect juxtaposition for her normally shy and timid on screen creations. But the film truly belongs to Fassbender, delivering anguish in abundance to a bold and daring portrait of the almost predatory Brandon. This is all epitomised in the sequence they share in a a top end bar with Mulligan singing ‘New York New York’, that is undoubtedly one of the most compelling and pain tinged snippets of cinema you will witness all year.
Criticism might be levelled at director Mcqueen for the uncoventional approach he takes. The character’s backstories not being elaborated on, with only one key piece of dialogue ‘we’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place‘ providing a sense of intrigue. The lack of remorse shown in the voyeuristic full frontal segments and his restraint from a predictable resolution to proceedings, may trigger groans from more mainstream audiences.
But by the film’s end, it has surely earned its right to bow out on its own terms. The provocative style and minimalism in how ‘Shame’ is shot and framed coupled with the performances, makes it a film hard to shake from the memory banks. A brave delve into a subject matter, that is normally frowned upon.