It’s a talking point film, Shame. You’re sort of obliged to see it, so that you can talk about it afterwards to other people who’ve seen it. When I saw it, last year, at a preview screening, I ended up talking about it in the pub afterwards with fellow critic Adam Smith for about an hour. We didn’t go to the pub to talk about it. We went to the pub to have a drink and catch up. But we couldn’t stop talking about Shame, despite the fact that neither of us thought it the equal of director Steve McQueen’s debut, also starring Michael Fassbender, Hunger. It is still an artistic, thought-provoking piece, and Fassbender gives another raw and physical performance, but I’m not sure anything could live up to Hunger, which is one of the best films I’ve seen this century and haunts me still.
Shame is causing a stir because it’s about sex addiction, although not about shame, really. A tough sell, as anyone without an addictive personality will probably think being addicted to sex isn’t much of a hardship, but it clearly is. Also, you make a film about sex, and people are going to expect to be titillated, even if they don’t admit it. Shame does not titillate. Its job is to do the opposite, in order to get inside the mind of Fassbender’s Brandon, who has one of those identikit high-flying office jobs in New York that means he gets to live in a nice apartment, wear nice suits and drink in expensive bars. The film reminded me of American Psycho, although Brandon’s psychosis doesn’t really hurt anyone else, it mainly hurts him. And his sister, Carey Mulligan, whose surprise presence in his life hints at something incestuous but only hints.
Shame, written by McQueen and the currently feted Abi Morgan, does a lot of hinting. This is not a problem. I don’t need motivation spelling out, or backstory told in flashback, as long as the action and characterisation strike me as real. In this, Shame succeeds. It frames Brandon’s disease against a glamorous backdrop – hey, we’re in New York, even the dirty streets and trains seems glamorous! – and all this does is accentuate his inner turmoil.
It’s not an easy film to watch, as it throbs with discomfort and awkwardness. When Mulligan walks in on her brother masturbating, or he walks in on her showering, it knocks Mike Leigh into a cocked hat. Or a hatted cock, if you prefer. This might be a film about New York, or cities in general, and their ability to inflict deep loneliness and disconnection. This city never sleeps, and nor do its inhabitants. When Brandon goes outside and runs off his demons and his spare energy, we run with him, in an extended sequence that is McQueen’s bravura moment, one to rival the mopping up of the piss in Hunger, or indeed its extended 17-minute, one-take scene between Fassbender’s Bobby Sands and Liam Cunningham’s priest, Father Dom. It’s not quite the equal of either, of course.
I’ve been moaning about the mysterious absence of Tyrannosaur from the Bafta lists, but Shame is not exactly a popcorn movie. It’s art, and difficult art. And to see it racking up award nominations is gratifying. We’re so used to seeing sex onscreen and the conventions around its depiction, which even in intelligent drama dictate that the act itself fades from lovingly dissolved close-ups of hands on bodies while suitable music plays, to the next morning, when light creeps in on discarded underwear and lovers wake up looking a bit disheveled. Nothing so conventional here.
Hunger was a personal, historical film – not exactly a biopic but certainly a depiction of an event in a man’s life – and a subject that meant something to McQueen, who remembers the hunger strikes in 1981 from his childhood and researched the subject thoroughly. (His co-writer was Irish playwright Enda Walsh, who will have had an even closer understanding of the story.) In it, everything came together, and McQueen was able to take the filmmaking that had won him acclaim in the art world into a new setting. Anyone expecting a pretty series of artistic images would have been disappointed. There were beautiful images in it (a snowflake dissolving on a bruised fist), but these did not detract from the seriousness of the subject, nor disrupt what was a very straightforward narrative.
Shame is, in many ways, easier to watch, and its narrative is characterised by ambiguity and missing information. This, I guess, is why it’s such a talking point. That and the sex. It’s a deeply sad film. And you get to see a lot of Fassbender again, if you like a bit of lean, lithe, pale, hairless Irish/German flesh. He really is an incredible screen presence, and although he’s casting flavour of the month, I think he has a lot of integrity and talent, and he will outlast his own fashionability. Although he looks good naked, he’s not vain. You only have to see Hunger to know that.
If you haven’t seen Hunger, best rectify that first. Then have a look at Shame, but don’t see either with a date.