Modern Greats #4: Shame – Review

Michael Prescott
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After a month-long hiatus, it’s time to return to our Modern Greats feature. After previously selecting and reviewing Animal Kingdom, Religulous and Senna, I now turn my attentions to Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender’s second collaboration, Shame. Released in 2011 (2012 in the UK), Shame follows Hunger and – just like its predecessor – it focuses largely on physicality and abuse of the body, as well as the pleasure-pain conundrum that is addiction.

It opens with a corpse-like Fassbender in bed, positioned carefully, before rising to start his day. Brandon’s statue-esque posture gives us an early indication of his debilitating condition, but also hints at the idea that he’s not really living life anymore. In a sense, he’s on autopilot. Only the arrival of his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), can – though not necessarily will – be a catalyst in changing that.

Before getting into the complexity of Brandon and Sissy, we’re first given an insight into Brandon’s life. Soaring music bookends the film, as do the long, lingering scenes of lingering, longing individuals. Regular visits from prostitutes, live ‘shows’ from girls on his laptop and daily masturbation sessions at work allow us to glimpse at a  man who is all-at-once ordinary and abnormal. What it does is allow us to acknowledge the extent to which his life has been penetrated and since held captive by such a crippling addiction.

Mulligan’s pre-empted but simultaneously surprising arrival highlights the extent of Brandon’s bubble, and she soon begins to infiltrate that space of his, knowingly or otherwise. The problem presented for Fassbender’s character is that he doesn’t stop to consider women and their thoughts, feelings or emotions. It’s a purely sexual release that he’s otherwise engaged in. But with the presence of Sissy, his sister, he has to re-activate that filter in order to distinguish her from the rest of womankind.

This contemplation is backed up rather convincingly on date night, when he actually begins to discover the philosophy of a colleague over a bottle of wine and some fine dining. The eventualities of this particular encounter aren’t so cut-and-dried as the others are, and his physical problem merely represents his discomfort over the broken down barriers and change of scenery. The sight of Carey Mulligan in all her glory upon her arrival is not a test for us, but for him. And yet the greatest indication of his struggle is when she interrupts his daily business, and his reaction is to straddle her – naked – with Sissy feeling understandably uncomfortable as a result.

One of the most interesting things about Hunger, however, was its structural setup. The first and third sections of the film felt rather non-traditional, and the action of these parts essentially builds around the centrepiece, which is a 17-minute unbroken shot of dialogue between two men. Whilst Shame is far more traditional in its approach, it still does adopt this process – albeit a watered-down version of it – to tell its story.

My argument is that Shame, therefore, also has a pivotal scene: the New York, New York rendition by Carey Mulligan. Whilst it’s not unbroken (it moves from a close-up of her face to Fassbender’s reaction and then back again), it does last 4½ minutes and says a lot about the film’s themes. This choice of song and location for the film – the Big Apple – isn’t arbitrary. It represents ideas of grandeur and stature, but what’s significant for Brandon is that this crippling sexual limitation (rather than the freedom as he might think) thrust upon him and his daily life prevents him from ever succumbing to such potential glory.

Despite working successfully at somewhere fairly prestigious – or at least assumed to be (we aren’t given much of an insight because Brandon barely sees his work for what it is) – he isn’t lured in by this. Or rather, he’s not able to be. This constant physical abuse of his prevents him from leading a normal life whilst at the same time suggesting (and projecting) to the outside world – to colleagues, friends, and family – that he does just that. And so the titular word “SHAME” brands Brandon with its double-edged meaning. That is, it refers to not only ‘shame’ in the sense of embarrassment or humiliation, but also pervades his life in the form of disappointment, or unfulfilled ambitions.

The reason that this New York sequence is such a focal point for the film is because it’s when Brandon has to confront Sissy’s attractive nature – her charm, beauty and innocence – and why it resonates with him so much. Additionally, he’s exploring his own identity through the lyrics, and just whether it is this affliction which has burdened and arrested his development in life, or whether it’s something else altogether.

Discarding the themes and philosophies for a moment, the sequence – from a filmmaking point of view – is simply extraordinary. The film is shot with beauty throughout, with lighting and sound having a subtle yet significant impact, but I find it no exaggeration to say that Mulligan is reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe for these few minutes. Much like Michelle Williams (who has in fact played Monroe in My Week with Marilyn), she has the rare ability to captivate an audience with her on-screen presence, and her facial expressions alone are doing the trick here.

This section longingly aches on Mulligan and, though there’s nothing else in shot, it wouldn’t matter a dot if there was. What McQueen manages to do in this set-piece is to create a “live” atmosphere, which evokes theatre (which the film would work well as, incidentally, though it would lose a little from the lack of New York cinematography). The staging of this, and the piece as a whole, is fully thought-through and explored just like a stage. And this “live” delivery of New York, New York – which allows it to become both animated and intimate – gives the film a feeling of extra depth that can’t be magically replicated via 3D.

One of the most praiseworthy elements of this section is that it remains engrained on your mind for the rest of the show. Not everybody loves it – even though I think they should, particularly given Brandon’s heartfelt reaction mid-song – but regardless, it remains incontrovertibly front-and-centre, unafraid to expose itself to its audience. It’s a memorable and yet slightly unconventional scene, which makes it all the better for it. Isn’t it exciting to see independent filmmakers unafraid to do something a little bit different?

McQueen is one of these directors, unashamedly bold in his vision. Following the success of Hunger and Shame, he is next on our screens with 12 Years a Slave – again with Fassbender – but also joined by the likes of Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti and Paul Dano (which, just this past weekend, got rave reviews and early Oscar contention status after playing at Telluride Film Festival). As for Shame, it’s a film about a man exploring his own identity through several specific strands. Brandon’s potential conversion is unclear and left deliberately ambiguous. The question is thrown open to the audience – engaging in a live event as they are– as to whether you think Brandon, who could bear everything but his soul, managed to finally negotiate his identity so that he could look upon his true self.

About Michael Prescott

24-year-old Welsh writer on all things film. Background in Philosophy. Accidentally in Sheffield for 6 years and counting. Addicted to Kevin Spacey. Tweetable: @M_S_Prescott