Shame, dir. Steve McQueen (2011)
All of the stars were aligning for Shame to be my newest favorite film about destructive addiction.
I entered the theater with an enduring respect and trust for McQueen, and I had been nursing a relatively significant man-crush on Michael Fassbender for the past year. At the risk of sounding dismissive, Shame was overall disappointing, with jigsaw gems shining discreetly within an overly-fragmented narrative.
McQueen is most known for his style, which capitalizes on truthful cinematography and editing with slow gravitas and poise. It’s an eye that is unwaveringly serious and profound, which served him so beautifully in Hunger (McQueen, 2008). Shame, however, does not carry the historical and political drama of the Irish hunger strikes of 1981; Shame pales in comparison, meandering towards melodrama faster than tragedy. I’ll empathize faster with Bobby Sands than Brandon (Michael Fassbender), the wealthy new-yorker-sex-addict who tries to straighten his life out.
That’s not to say that there aren’t several profoundly cinematic moments built carefully into the film. One would be when Brandon’s trashy-yet-charming sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), sings a slow song in a high-rise bar where Brandon and his boss, David (James Badge Dale), watch. Mulligan’s pain dances behind a thin veil of sexuality as we watch her in an uncomfortably close and unwavering shot (which McQueen barely cut away from). It’s hypnotizing and powerful. Another occurs soon thereafter; the three end up at Brandon’s apartment, where Sissy and David lock themselves in Brandon’s bedroom and have sex in his bed. Brandon, with a visceral disgust, undresses, and just as the audience begins to contemplate the the revolting notion that he may be planning to join them, Brandon is in his running clothes out jogging the city streets at night. This jog lasts well over 5 minutes in a continuous take, and it is a well-needed breath for the audience.
There are many moments of beauty in Shame, but for me, the pieces didn’t come together in harmony. I can’t help but feel similarly to how I felt leaving Somewhere (Coppola, 2010). While the vision and pacing of a well-laid film appeared on the screen, the content couldn’t support its very careful presentation. My biggest reaction, overall, is how little I was able to care about Brandon’s situation. I engaged with the film more so on a clinical level than an emotional one; Shame is less of a character-study than a case-study.