101 mins, rated R 18+, opens 9 February 2012.
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
(This is my review as published in
the Feb 2011 issue of The NSW
Law Society Journal)
Shame is the second feature
film from director Steve McQueen, and it’s his second collaboration
with the talented German-born, Irish-raised actor Michael Fassbender.
Their first film together was Hunger
(LSJ Oct 2008), a tough and powerful film about the Irish Troubles,
focusing on the 1981 hunger strike of Bobby Sands.
At first, Shame seems light
years away from Hunger: Both films are provocative, but where Hunger told the story of a
political prisoner who refused to take food until his body wasted away,
Shame is about a man who is
ruled by his sexual appetite. Whereas Hunger
was about denial, Shame is
about excess. Both films are extremely accomplished, but neither film
is about joy.
In Shame, Fassbender plays
Brandon, who’s in his thirties, an executive at a nameless, anodyne
corporation in downtown Manhattan. Everyone spouts management jargon,
but we never find out what they do. Brandon’s enthusiastic but
obnoxious boss (James Badge Dale) is married, yet makes excruciating
attempts to pick up women.
But Brandon seduces women effortlessly, and all the time. His answering
machine is filled with messages from a distraught woman (we assume its
a jilted lover – we later find out who it was). He never calls back. He
flirts wordlessly, predatorily, with a woman on the train. He
masturbates often and watches porn on his computer, at home and at
work, to the point that his boss has to confiscate it. He uses
prostitutes and live sex internet sites.
He’s relentless about sex, and we don’t know why – until a woman turns
up at his apartment unexpectedly. She has a key, but she’s not a
girlfriend. She’s his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan, from Lone
Scherfig’s, An Education
(2009), and soon to be seen as Daisy in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby). Sissy’s
got problems, and needs to stay with Brandon for a while. But this
might interfere with Brandon’s lone, repetitive existence, and force
him to deal with someone who is real, who will be there the next day.
Brandon’s conflicted reaction – involving yet more sex and seduction,
and an abortive but heartbreaking attempt to connect with a lovely work
colleague – is played out against a fascinating depiction of the city
in the background. We see the city from above, from a swanky club or an
expensive apartment, all twinkling lights and distant glamour, or we
are in the subway, with thousands of strangers. We see long takes of
the city’s streets, close-up and grimy, filled with the homeless and
the wandering. There’s violence in a back alley. We plunge, with
Brandon, through the various circles of hell. There’s plenty of sex, or
people wanting sex, but no sign of human warmth or communication.
All the performances here are powerful and fearless. Fassbender is
(once again) astonishing: he won Best Actor at the 2011 Venice Film
Festival for this role. Carey Mulligan is brave and strong in a role
that calls for her to bare her body and her soul. And both James Badge
Dale as Brandon’s boss and Nicole Beharie as his colleague, give
Director McQueen is a visual artist who won the Turner Prize for
contemporary art in 1999 for one of his film installations, and was
made a CBE in 2011 for service to visual arts. Cinematographer Sean
Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker both worked with McQueen before on Hunger. All involved are serious
artists and this is a serious, adult film.
Hunger received an MA
classification when it was released in Australia in 2008. Shame has been given the more
restrictive rating of R 18+ (so it can only be seen by those aged 18
and older, and it can’t be marketed as widely). Both films have the
power to shock, but where Hunger
mostly involved violence, torture, gore and bodily functions, Shame mostly involves sex and
nudity. Shame received a
tough NC-17 rating in the US too.
Fassbender was surprised and disappointed at the NC-17 rating, saying
"Most of us have sex, so I don't understand what we're trying to sweep
under the carpet or repress... Why should it be more normal to, like,
chop people's heads off and shoot people? Does that mean that that's
more acceptable or closer to us as human beings?".
Fassbender may have a point about what he sees as a hypocritical
distinction made between violence and sex in film rating systems, but
he’s on shakier ground with Shame.
The sex in Shame is not
typical: it’s pathological. Shame
explores dark corners of the human psyche. It is not a film for
children, and, like Hunger,
it is not an entertainment. McQueen is using cinema – and this time a
brilliant music score too – to explore the uncomfortable, raw, physical
aspects of the human condition. In Shame,
as in Hunger, the body is the