‘These little town blues, are melting away, I’ll make a brand new start of it, In old New York’ ~ Frank Sinatra (Words by John Kander and Fred Ebb)
Steve McQueen has a perfect name for cinema and, with the more famous actor long deceased, he now has full artistic prevalence. After studying film at London and New York art colleges during the early 1990s, then making his name in 1999 by winning the controversial Turner Prize with his loosely post-modernist video homage to Buster Keaton (a silent black and white film), his second feature Shame follows the acclaimed and multi award-winning Hunger (2008), which also stars Michael Fassbender and also deals with issues of the body and freedom.
Shame is set in present day New York and depicts the flipside of the (Metrosexual) Metropolitan playground of the rich and/or beautiful as seen through the moral decline of one outwardly unsuspicious man. Brandon (Fassbender) is doing very well in his white-collar job and lives in a high-rise all mod cons apartment in Manhattan. As a single 30-something he has complete freedom, or so it seems…The truth is that Brandon is an out of control serial sex addict, both in copulation and privately (e.g. online porn, videos, magazines, onanism) and doesn’t seem willing to seek help for it. Shame progressively focuses on his personal and spiraling addiction as it comes to the fore, particularly after the impromptu arrival of his vulnerable and emotionally insecure sister ‘Sissy’ (Carey Mulligan) at his apartment.
‘If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere’
As the film progresses we come to understand that Brandon and his sister are two sides of the same coin. Both are uprooted Irish immigrants still searching for a place to call home in the clichéd American dream. Brandon seems totally composed on the surface, while Sissy is a talented singer but emotionally crippled and dependent. She extends her stay at Brandon’s apartment after falling out with her latest boyfriend. In a posh bar, with Brandon and his married but serial womanising boss David (James Badge Dale) in attendance, she sings a brilliantly brooding rendition of ‘New York’, her version practically rendering itself as a knowingly mournful requiem (à la Fado) for the millions of New Yorkers who have tried but haven’t ‘made it there’, herself the next failed hopeful. Her subsequent casual liaison with David paradoxically invokes Brandon’s moral disdain.
Brandon’s own aversion towards an intimate relationship and his rejection of those close to him (including his sister) ultimately takes him by surprise. The most poignant juncture of Brandon’s addiction is when, uncharacteristically, he falls into a conventional dating game with his work colleague (Nicole Beharie). With their (non-parallel) sexual chemistry rising quickly, Brandon’s conflict of his shameful addiction is revealed when he takes her to the same hotel he has had paid or non-paid brief encounters. During intimate foreplay, his moral shame rises to the surface and causes sexual confusion in that he is caught in the paradox of quick, exciting and gratuitous fulfillment in what should be the start of a sweet, tender and committed relationship.
Shame is not a generic film but seems to incorporate traits of popular genre. Though loosely a drama (namely erotic drama), it is not a melodrama. Yet it is nothing if not ultra vivid, an existentialist exercise in sleazy solipsism. Shame is also not a film-noir, though Brandon and his sister do seem to be depicted as inexorably doomed characters from the outset. Brandon also seems resigned to his fate like the good protagonist of a noir film usually does. It cannot be described as a late addition to the sub-genre late-80s/early-90s yuppie nightmare film either as an outside party in those films changes the equilibrium, while here self-implosion is caused by Brandon, the same scenario for his sister.
‘It’s up to you, New York..New York New York!!!’
Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt is familiar with McQueen’s meticulous approach to filmmaking after they worked together on Hunger. Under McQueen’s direction, the mise-en-scene superficially depicting the successful careerists of Shame works initially to create a delusionary ‘intoxicated’ effect of shiny surfaces but the camera-eye soon transfers to Brandon. By the end, the film gives the overall impression of being somewhat spliced together by a fly-on-the-wall docu-fiction style (excerpts, fragments) that is molded into a chronological strain (or stain), particularly complemented by Joe Walker’s excellent editing. Brandon, whether on a casual pick-up or being flirty/seedy in public places like the New York metro, reflects the grime of the director’s choice of downbeat locations that serve for the release of his addictions. The streets of Brandon’s New York, his seedy bubble, and the loose chronological flow of events creates an empty tension, a trajectory away from morality and sanity.
Just like Hunger, McQueen’s Shame is a compelling film, and draws the audience voluntarily (albeit subconsciously) into its voyeurism, the images staying in the memory long after the screening has finished. The most poignant line in the film is not spoken but left as a note from Sissy to Brandon, neatly summing up their shared pain: ‘We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.’ For our part, we accept the shame of the protagonist(s) as an inevitable redemption of the human existential condition.