Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale
Plot: Brendan (Fassbender) is addicted to sex, a problem that he doesn’t realise is destroying him, until his fragile sister (Mulligan) comes to stay.
The story about a sex addict living in New York City would strike most writers as the chance to dive into a raunchy comedy that parades half-dressed women around (the word ‘half’ defined loosely), while several awkward but hilarious scenarios litter the script. Few would consider that the subject might have genuine dramatic weight. However, Steve McQueen, just wrapped on his widely successful debut feature finds it source for prime dissection in Shame.
The first quarter of an hour show us an interesting insight into the life of a man who cannot think past his next orgasm. He is introduced as a quiet man riding the subway to work. He makes eye contact with a pretty woman on a carriage and the stock Fassbender charm begins to come into play. He is handsome, has deep eyes and most of his films involve women falling down at his feet. However, as the scene silently plays out, it descends into pure creepiness. Fassbender’s stare does not waver and McQueen’s camera pans away from her sweet face and to the space between her legs. Suddenly, we are not in a rom-com but a chilling horror story. The girl clocks that the handsome man making eyes at her might not be her dream match and slips off at the next station. Fassbender gives chase, thankfully loses her and we see the frantic expression of a man so wrapped up in fulfilling sexual gratification that he missed a romantic opportunity. The early scenes are made up of several moments like that. At first, Fassbender’s often naked form and a scene of him masturbating first thing in the morning in the shower come across as the hallmarks of edgy film-making. However, the imagery gets more frequent, not letting up for a second. Fassbender’s life is completely devoted to sex, whether he is watching pornography over the breakfast table (or on his virus infected work computer), or hiring prostitutes for quick relief. The supporting stars add juxtapositions to the sex addiction, giving the audience different angles of it. Fassbender’s sister is a wounded soul, recovering from a bad break-up and taking part in meaningless one night stands in the hopes of filling something she is missing. Fassbender’s boss is a womaniser, although not a particularly good one, who we later learns has a wife at home. Are they any different? However, as Shame plays out, it becomes more and more apparent that Fassbender’s character is tearing his life apart, his mind focused on one base instinct. What follows is a fascinating study on the kind of addiction that most people gloss over with a smirk.
Or at least that is what I was hoping Shame would be. Hyped to an impossible level, I went into Shame with strong expectations. However, as soon as the opening gambit has died down and we are left with Fassbender’s relationship with his sister to fill the screen, Shame becomes a different movie altogether. We see Fassbender’s addiction at work, as his personal life is constantly put on the back-burner, but we never understand it. I didn’t come away from Shame knowing more about the burden of suffering nymphomania. The two other films that I have watched on the subject, Nymphomaniac and Don Jon, helped me peek behind the psyche of the lead characters. I didn’t get that at all with Shame. A large part of the reason for that was that McQueen seems to get distracted by the character of Brendan. The sex addiction is almost an excuse to set up a decent character and then the rest of the movie pushes it to the background and writes up a family drama with Brendan at the center. Fassbender delivers an unreal character performance, true, a man pushed to emotional extremes, but it’s not the performance we necessarily wanted to see. The sexual frustration descends into simple frustration and Fassbender essentially plays a man with a short temper, which is not really in the same league of interesting. Also McQueen’s direction gets a little too indulgent. I have always been a fan of the tracking shot, where the camera holds a frame for as long as the director dares to. But McQueen over-uses it. It works for the opening montage, but it is over-used by the end. The first moment where it became too much was an extreme close-up on Carey Mulligan’s face as she sings in a fancy bar. Mulligan sings the whole song, and damn she can sing, but it brings absolutely nothing to the story. By the end of the film, McQueen simply films Fassbender waiting on an elevator going down without cutting. It is frustratingly artsy, but for all the wrong reasons. Yes, McQueen has it in him to be a great director with beautiful cinematography and precise attention to detail. The performances too are faultless, especially from Mulligan who is lumped with a sister role she is far better than. But this film is a poor example of that, a story that sadly lost its way somewhere in development.
Final Verdict: Shame is a great idea, but shies away from the central concept, so it ends up as an empty shell of a movie.