Article/ Shame: Soul on Fire

Shame features a startling performance by Michael Fassbender, descending through the moral inferno of contemporary New York

By Ailsa Ferrier

Undoubtedly one of the finest British films of the year, Steve McQueen’s powerful second film premiered at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, to universal acclaim, with its director and lead actor Michael Fassbender winning awards.

The story follows Brandon, a good-looking and successful New York yuppie. Beneath the veneer of his comfortable life, he suffers from an insatiable sex addiction that has become all-consuming. Little is known about his past until his wayward sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a singer with an equally self-destructive personality, turns up in his apartment. Her presence, and her repeated requests to stay with him so that she can sort her own life out, sends – or perhaps coincides with – Brandon’s life spiralling out of control. The sparring between them, ranging from rage through to an uneasy intimacy, has all the authenticity of a sibling relationship. Neither Brandon nor Sissy appear capable of loving or caring about anyone – with the exception of each other.

Fassbender is characteristically stunning as the charming yet tortured Brandon – a powerful combination of animal magnetism and moral decrepitude. More surprising is Mulligan, who gives an emotionally raw performance that skilfully avoids cliché and is underpinned by its quiet restraint.

Also worthy of credit is McQueen’s co- writer, Abi Morgan. They were reportedly ‘set up’ by their mutual agent who thought they might work well together. Their initial discussion about the commoditisation of sex in contemporary society resulted in the kernel of this beguilingly simple story. The subsequent research drew them to New York.They found people there much more willing to talk openly and frankly about the nature of their addictions. The resulting script echoed many of the stories the writers were told.

Shame has both a contemporary feel and a sense of cool nostalgia for its setting. Manhattan is not merely the backdrop to the struggle of these emotionally isolated characters – it is presented as a character in its own right. We recognise this filmic city: the gun-metal greys, an affluent, ominous atmosphere. It is a city of endless office buildings that sparkle in the night sky, as well as its alter ego: the seedy, dirty and dangerous underbelly, which can be lonely and suffocating. Twice in the film, Brandon finds himself on the banks of the Hudson River in a state of desperation. Like a character from a Caspar David Friedrich painting, he looks out to the water, trapped and desperately seeking reassurance from something more powerful, more elemental than him. The terrifying city, like the culture of consumption the film is commenting on, is as voracious as his addiction.

McQueen won the Turner Prize in 1999 and has since represented Britain in the 2009 Venice Biennale. His art work is peppered with a clear admiration for cinema history and language, often employing film as material and inspiration. He famously restaged a sequence from Buster Keaton’s 1928 film Steamboat Bill Jnr. in his 1997 short Deadpan, in which the façade of a house collapses around McQueen, who stands in the place of one of the house’s windows and is left unscathed. But unlike the Keaton film, the effect is more eerie than slapstick.

The artist first came to the attention of the cinematic world as the director of Hunger, which picked up the Camera d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. It focused on IRA member Bobby Sands (Fassbender), who led the 1981 Irish hunger strike at the Maze prison. Hunger, like Shame, uses the body as a brutal and visceral weapon. In the former, it is employed as resistance against imprisonment, while in Shame, it becomes a vessel to create it.

McQueen’s latest film seems to draw less on his background as an artist, although he continues to use extended shots to great effect. In one of the film’s particularly impressive sequences, we move alongside Brandon as he runs though city at night. It has shades of Eva’s arrival in New York in Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 film Stranger than Paradise, or one of Orson Welles’ beautifully choreographed tracking shots.

Although Shame is, by its nature, explicit in concept and content, it is not necessarily a film about sex, or indeed sex addiction, but about the overwhelming and consuming nature of the modern condition. It deals with how we are shaped by our experiences and relationships, and is a situation in which we can find ourselves powerless to change. Brandon happens to be the most extreme example of this.

McQueen’s ability to make the taboo subject of sex addiction into a universal theme is perhaps the film’s greatest achievement. In one of the final sequences, we bear witness to Brandon’s wild night of sexual excess, in all its orgiastic and visceral detail. And yet, the effect is devastating. It is moments like these, of which there are many throughout the film, that underline McQueen’s genius and may indeed catapult Shame to zeitgeist status in years to come.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas

Shame screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 13 January