When I first watched ‘Hunger’ - the debut feature film from British artist Steve McQueen - it was hard not to be taken aback by such an intimate portrait of human extremes and where it did have its flaws (creeping into artsy pretentiousness), it was a very strong stepping stone to bridge the gap from art to feature film making. His sophomore feature, ‘Shame’ is a much more refined piece of film craft that really shows McQueen is definitely a director to watch out for in the future.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a model citizen of Manhattan. He’s top dog in his job, he’s charming, well dressed and lives in a comfortable, modern flat high up in the city. However, he’s also a sex addict - an addiction he works around in his day-to-day life with calm calculation. But when his younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes for an unexpected (and indefinite) visit, his routine is shattered and he is forced to deal with his addiction.
But to say that this is a film about sex addiction would make it sound like a film that tried to deal with the issues surrounding it: causes, problems and the effect it has on Brandon and those around him. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The causes are only hinted at, the problems it brings aren’t black and white and the effects are not what we would imagine. Not least because Sissy is just as damaged as Brandon. So it’s much more like a portrait of people dealing with their emotional damages and it just so happens that the protagonist we find ourselves with manifests these damages as a sex addiction.
It’s this emotional quality of the film that is the driving force of the story, rather than actual plot. Taking place over the course of a few days, we see slices of Brandon’s life and routine and how once Sissy appears, the utter contrast between the two characters completely disrupts it. They are both complete train wrecks of people who have both developed their own ways of dealing with life. Where Brandon is sophisticated and introverted, Sissy is impulsive and extroverted. But both of them share a traumatic past that is never revealed and all we know is that despite being total opposites, they both share a tragic loneliness. This is most clear during a sequence in which Sissy sings an original, haunting rendition of “New York, New York” at a stylish Manhattan bar. The shots are close and editing is minimal and the emotion is ramped up by the magnificent performances of both actors.
Both Fassbender and Mulligan give the performances of their careers. The lingering shots of Brandon doing very little other than thinking are utterly compelling to watch and to see Mulligan playing the total opposite of her usual quiet, mousy characters is incredibly refreshing. These performances are emphasised by McQueen’s use of the long take, where emotional beats of the script change and the performances change with them. The performances also work in harmony with all visual aspects of the film. Both characters are seen in reflections, shot through glass or we see the backs of them. McQueen places the audience in the position of a voyeur, keeping us visually distant from the characters as they distance themselves from everyone around them in their own ways. It all comes together to produce a film more about crushing isolation than sex addiction.
What really struck me about the film was the audience reaction to when the unflinching and raw sex scenes appeared. There was a lot of awkward laughter, which was intriguing to say the least - the presentation of sex as essentially animalistic seemed to make the audience squirm. Believe me when I say the sex scenes aren’t sexy, not in the traditional Hollywood sense anyway. There isn’t any sweeping emotional music or rich colours with glamorous lighting - it’s just pure fucking.
But the question of the laughter is an intriguing one. Maybe by placing us in a position of voyeurism, McQueen is placing the audience in Brandon’s position when a work colleague discovers his work computer is full of porn - that embarrassment of being caught? Or maybe laughing off the sex scenes is an emotional barrier for the realism involved - we don’t want to admit that we have sex in such an animalistic and unromantic fashion?
Sounds like an essay topic, I’m digressing a little.
But despite the frank and graphic sex scenes, the real emotional plight of the film comes from the parts that made the audience laugh for another reason: seeing two characters having genuinely comic and emotional interactions - little moments showing that both Brandon and Sissy have the potential to engage in an emotional relationship with someone, but their debilitating personalities won’t allow them. That’s what makes this film so ultimately tragic, yet utterly compelling. It’s a weighty film to watch, but if you see any film at the cinema this awards season, make sure it’s this one as it’s worth every single penny you’ll spend on it...
...just don’t bring your parents or first dates with you.