Early in Steve McQueen’s Shame there’s a long take from the end of a bar in a posh Manhattan lounge as a businessman (James Badge Dale) frenetically hits on an attractive woman and her two friends look on. The shot lasts several minutes as the man fumbles pass after pass; finally he excuses himself to visit the bathroom, which allows his coworker to attract the woman’s attention by playing it smooth. McQueen, working with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, is hypersensitive to the lighting and sonic architecture of the room: a long fluorescent bulb just below the bar casts an aura of uncertain intimacy, and the dance music (“Genius of Love” by Tom Tom Club) bounces exclusively on the far-left channel of the soundtrack, suggesting that cheap pleasure waits just outside the frame. These qualities, given added weight by the shot’s extended duration, encourage the viewer to regard the action as though it were a piece of sculpture, to contemplate the intermingling of glamour and sleaze. Yet this scene of high-class single life wouldn’t be out of place in an Aaron Spelling TV series, which the shallow dialogue generally recalls.
The sequence reveals the strengths and ultimately the overpowering weaknesses of McQueen’s second feature, his first since the widely acclaimed Hunger (2008). I understand why some people were impressed with Hunger, which dramatized the 1981 hunger strike of IRA member Bobby Sands to protest cruelty in the British prison system; McQueen re-created the experience of Irish political prisoners with such heaviness and specific detail that you could empathize with their suffering. Yet Hunger never let you forget its artfulness, as McQueen underscored every moment with expressionist lighting, a moody close-up, or a technically difficult long take. In the end the film recast human suffering as an art object or an advertisement (one of its most memorable images—a cell wall that a prisoner has smeared with his own shit in neat concentric circles—resembled the logo for Target).
McQueen’s fusion of political subject matter and promotional savvy makes me uncomfortable; I can never shake the feeling that the promotion actually takes precedence over the politics. Consider his 2007 artwork Queen and Country, in which 160 British soldiers killed in Iraq were memorialized with facsimile sheets of postage stamps bearing their likenesses. McQueen said this was an ideal way to honor the soldiers because postage stamps “went into the world, who knows where,” even as the soldiers’ deaths were underreported by the British press. It’s a clever analogy, but it comes at the expense of the people who inspired it. How many gallery patrons who admired Queen and Country took the time to read about every soldier it depicted?
McQueen’s questionable ethics might be overlooked if his art raised awareness of injustice. But Shame, which is explicitly apolitical, suggests that McQueen has little to say without the veneer of sloganeering. Most of the film feels recycled from sexually explicit art movies dating back at least to Last Tango in Paris (1972) and continuing with movies like Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy (2001) or Götz Spielmann’s Antares (2004). With nothing new in its characters, settings, or themes, Shame has little to offer except McQueen’s style, which does little to elucidate anything around it.
The movie follows Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a thirty-something sex addict living in Manhattan. In spite of his compulsion—which prompts him to view porn, pick up women, or solicit prostitutes every few hours—he appears to be a successful advertising executive who enjoys the respect of his peers. We don’t learn much about his job, however, beyond the fact that it funds a life of luxury; likewise, we rarely see how Brandon convinces so many random women to couple with him. McQueen is more interested in the moments of Brandon’s life that lend themselves to abstract images. Frequently included in Shame are slow-motion close-ups of the hero’s strained face while he masturbates or fucks, or medium shots that regard characters through the glass panels common to voguish contemporary design. Both motifs play on an ambiguity between suggestiveness and emptiness: does Brandon derive some primal satisfaction from his excesses, or are they just a screen for some unpleasant emotion, like, you know, shame?
McQueen has traded in arbitrary mystery for some time. His first major work, Bear (1993), was a video installation that depicted two naked men standing in an empty room and exchanging glances that could be read as either flirtatious or antagonistic. Its impact, such as it was, derived from a deliberate absence of context; had McQueen revealed why his subjects were looking at each other, Bear probably would have lost much of its allure. Tellingly, Shame starts to feel banal as McQueen explains who his characters are and where they come from; in narrative filmmaking, one can present decontextualized images for only so long.
Early in the film McQueen reveals that Brandon has been avoiding contact with his younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), an emotionally unsettled girl who’s trying to succeed as a singer. But when Sissy finds herself homeless, Brandon grudgingly lets her stay at his loft. Her uneasy presence soon upsets his sexual routine: he’s unwilling to bring women home and eventually starts to lose his cool as a seducer. We soon gather that Brandon has long suppressed an incestuous desire for Sissy and that it accounts for his self-destructive behavior.
The theme of a successful man undone by incestuous longing is hardly new in movies: it’s the not-so-hidden subtext of Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932). (Similarly, McQueen’s tendency to suggest alienation by filming characters through panes of glass does little to advance on a trope from Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), as Rainer Werner Fassbinder did in many of his 70s films.) The only thing that distinguishes Shame is the overall explicitness of its sexual content and McQueen’s effort to turn this familiar Freudian complex into yet another pretty abstraction—most pretentiously, when Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. accompanies a scene of Brandon fleeing the loft after he hears Sissy having sex.
Over the course of the movie Brandon masturbates, wrestles with Sissy wearing only a towel, and performs analingus on one of his sexual conquests. The role calls on Fassbender to do things most serious actors shun, but he’s nothing if not game; playing Bobby Sands in Hunger, he reduced himself to a dangerously low weight. But as in that film, the physical demands of this one end up distracting from the characterization they’re intended to support. There’s no denying Fassbender’s daring, but as McQueen’s work proves, daring doesn’t have much impact when it becomes an end in itself.
Correction: This story has been amended to correctly reflect changes that were identified in a second screening of the film.