About half way through Shame there’s a scene where the main character Brandon, a corporate analyst, goes on a date with a work colleague. The conversation is strained and stop-start until the woman falls back on the obvious. Volunteering the fact that she’s recently separated after a brief, ill-conceived marriage, she asks Brandon about his own relationship track record. He hesitates before claiming - not entirely convincingly - that the longest he’s ever gone out with a woman is four months. Warming to the topic, he spells out his own philosophy of non-commitment, dismissing not only matrimony but any form of emotional connection between human beings.
It is a rare articulate moment in a film whose strength is more communicating through visual composition, atmosphere and the nuances of performance. For a character study Shame is remarkably quiet on its protagonist’s back story or even the specifics of his job. The narrative is simple and straight forward. Brandon lives a solitary existence, one designed around his sexual obsession. Whilst maintaining a facade of normality when amongst his co-workers and boss, in private he indulges every opportunity to enjoy pornography, masturbate and engage in coldly conjugal acts with paid professionals or those of a similar, non-committed disposition . This quietly desperate lifestyle is interrupted by the arrival of his troubled sister Sissy, an emotionally needy singer who is determined to stay in Brandon’s apartment and rekindle sibling bonds.
Although Brandon’s propensity for violence is mostly confined to masochism the way Shame taps into the misogynistic elements of corporate culture reminded me strongly of the novel American Psycho. Certainly it gets closer to examining how pornography and materialism can harden the heart than the Mary Harron film adaptation of the Brett Easton Ellis book. However, Ellis’ work is basically satirical fantasy. By contrast, Shame director and co-writer Steve McQueen has a much warmer agenda. However extreme Brandon’s behaviour gets he retains audience sympathy. The longer the film goes on the greater the sense that his personality has been shaped by unspeakable and unspecified horrors in childhood. Shame is the story of a lost soul but one who has a chance of redemption.
Michael Fassenbender is astonishingly good as Brandon. It is a fearless performance both in the sense that every inch of the body is on display and in the manner in which Fassbender delineates character through physical action. Almost as good is Carey Mulligan’s Sissy, especially in an extended scene where the actress puts a touching new spin on the old Sinatra classic “New York, New York”. If Sissy as written has a whiff of cliche about her Mulligan’s charm makes up for it.
McQueen has an artist’s eye, stressing Brandon’s isolation by framing him in such as way to emphasise negative space and using close-ups to objectify his and his lovers’ features. Some might mistake the latter technique for the prurient but it’s actually quite the opposite. Shame is a rigorous deconstruction of the aesthetics and mentality of pornography, a brave and necessary film in today’s increasingly sexualised world, one that seeks less to judge its flawed characters than mourn their loss of humanity.
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