Tuesday 10 January 2012

Limited release: "Shame"

As an Englishman, it is my birthright to snigger whenever sex becomes too po-faced for its own good. I like my sex fun, and if it's not fun, I like my sex to be funny, and if it's not funny, my overriding desire is to make it so. I'm sorry, it's just the way I roll; don't hate the playa, hate the game. The sniggering began early in Steve McQueen's Shame, with a scene in which Michael Fassbender's sex addict Brandon attracts the attentions of a married hottie on the New York subway by dint of a series of long, lingering looks: looks no man on screen has attempted - or dared attempt - since the days of David Duchovny in Zalman King's Red Shoe Diaries, and no man in reality has attempted without the immediate involvement of the appropriate transport police.

For all his glowering, the addict returns home alone, where he joylessly pleasures himself before a laptop of hardcore grot, to the lilting strains of the "Goldberg Variations", and you have an image of him, or of McQueen, fingering the CD racks for the right accompaniment: "Don't get me wrong, I love Beethoven, but the 'Adagio' puts me right off my stroke." Later, while walking home from a bar, Brandon will be picked up on the kerb by a woman who'd given his overbearing wingman the brush-off a full hour before, the odds of these two characters coinciding on the street after going their separate ways into the Manhattan night being broadly comparable to mankind finding intelligent life on Katie Price. "Wanna ride?," the woman asks. You get the drift.

Shame redresses itself with a brisk sketch of New York office and body politics: at this dude's place of work, someone's spread a virus to the firm's internal e-mail system (gee, I wonder who), and Brandon, suddenly starved of release, retires to the bathroom to punch his own clock, as it were. Back at his metal-and-glass, isn't-it-empty-ah-but-isn't-it-desirable? apartment, with its rack upon rack of (snigger away) 12" disco classics, our hero finds the order brought to his life through paying and fucking prostitutes disrupted with the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who bursts into the film naked and dishevelled, her roots showing and her arms self-lacerated, woman-as-mess.

Yet Sissy, an aspirant singer whose very business is emotion, is a young woman around whom Brandon is supposed to feel protective, not predatory - indeed, her nightclub rendition of "New York, New York" coaxes a single, desultory tear, perhaps the only bodily fluid he has left, from her brother's cold, steely eyes. (Question: why wasn't Fassbender cast as one of the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds? He'd have been a perfect fit.) Shame starts to make sense the minute Mulligan appears, becomes funnier (deliberately funnier), livelier, and more credible besides; for the first time, there's something at stake in Brandon's posturing - someone on screen who may conceivably get hurt by it, if she hasn't been already.

The film is certainly onto something about frustration and release: it views the addict as automaton-like, conditioned to remove his (its? Fassbender scarcely seems human) trousers every time he hears panting - which gets tricky when it turns out his sister has a better record in the sack than he himself does. When Sissy trills the lines "I want to be king of the hill/Top of the heap", it's as much as anything a challenge to our Viagra-hardened lothario; maybe this is why Brandon weeps. When brother says to sister, with an eye to their living arrangements, "this isn't working out", he's also analysing the longest sustained, most tormented relationship of his entire adult life.

McQueen, for his part, looks to have largely abandoned the video-art strategies that made his feature debut Hunger the striking experience it was, although flickers and echoes remain: in an opening repetition of shots describing the hero emerging naked from rumpled bedclothes and trawling his answerphone in the hope of landing pick-ups for the following night, and in a belated stab at expressionistic troilism - in which Fassbender gives us both his "o" and "po" faces - that half the audience will find transcendental and half (the English half, perhaps) will find hilarious. What's crucial is that awareness of audience: the film is self-conscious in a way Hunger wasn't, commercially minded in its glossy ad-land aesthetic, its casting, and its willingness to lay its performers bare - for even sex addiction sells.

The result is an odd and somewhat offputting mix: in its attempts to film a very contemporary form of alienation, Shame is the closest anybody's got of late to putting the business of an Antonioni film into the multiplexes, yet in such moments as that wherein Sissy interrupts her sibling jacking off in the bathroom, it starts to resemble Fast Times at Ridgemont High with a heavy side order of pretension. The women - which is to say the ones who get scenes, rather than quickies up against an alley wall, or bedroom window: Mulligan, certainly, and Nicole Beharie as the colleague with whom this most damaged of protagonists may still stand a chance - are sharply defined, which helps the film's cause.

But they're sharply defined against the fuzziness of the Fassbender character, about whom we cannot entirely be sure what the film really thinks. Are we supposed to pity him? Care for him? Secretly admire him? Is the shame of the title Biblical? Or is it simply a shame that he won't or can't settle down; that he's in some way clinging - sadly, desperately - to the hedonism New York represented in the 1970s, and cannot bring himself to let go? (Those disco and New Wave records that adorn the soundtrack somehow seem key: this is the same Manhattan where CBGBs has been replaced by luxury apartments and high-end boutiques for corporate drones like Brandon; we should note in passing that "Shame Shame Shame" was a hit for Shirley and Company at the height of the disco era.)

As canvasses go, Shame is more subjective than most: you'll bring to it whatever experience you have of love, sex, obsession, relationships and seduction, and any given review is liable to reveal more about its author than it does about the film. Though McQueen resists doing with sweat and spunk what he did with shit in Hunger (adding to the film's rarefied air), the compulsion of his film resides in the vivid swirls around its edges, in its style, rather than its content, which is occasionally mishandled, and sometimes missing altogether. Shame has something in common with Courbet's The Origin of the World or, indeed, those disco records: they all have holes in the middle of them, which the viewer is invited to find either alluring and inviting, or terrifying, or baffling, depending on personal taste and the length of time they're prepared to spend looking into them. Sometimes, though, as any sex addict worth their weight in Cialis knows, a hole is a hole is a hole.

Personally, even though I was given copious reasons to empathise with the protagonist - we apparently share a bump on the back of our heads, a legacy of a childhood accident, and a fondness for Nile Rodgers' rhythm guitar on the extended mix of Chic's "I Want Your Love" - I still couldn't make head nor tail of him. One glaring absence is any credible sense of how these siblings got this way to begin with; the film is all effect, no cause, all seductive surface, no deep-tissue scarring, and Fassbender's nudity looks to me like an attempt to distract from a performance that remains entirely withholding elsewhere. (Only in our fucked-up world could a filmmaker knock out a notionally hard-hitting drama about sex addiction, and see cinemagoers and critics everywhere emerge saying "phwoar, eh?")

Besides, dare I venture that these aren't problems (boo-hoo, I have too much sex; boo-hoo, I have too much money to spend on sex) that most viewers face at the moment; that, in fact, the bleak socioeconomic theories of Michel Houellebecq - that society is more divided than ever into haves and have-nots: those with the cash to get laid, and those who simply cannot afford to go out - may be more pertinent to this particular moment? McQueen is beholden to a form of alienation that he may very well have studied at art school - that of the art cinema of the 1960s and 70s, whose filmmakers had the luxury of contemplating such issues from a distance - yet three, four decades on, that particular form of alienation has become pretty alienating in itself.

Those scenes in which we watch Fassbender on the prowl prove an unedifying experience, and this is as it's meant, on some level, to be: addiction of any kind is a grim affair, and Brandon's ordeal should be comparable to Renton's headfirst dive into Scotland's filthiest lavatory to rescue his lost drugs in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting. Yet Shame's final mise-en-abîme is dubious-bordering-on-homophobic (after a fruitless quest for stray, Brandon bottoms out in a gay bar, in McQueen's vision evidently the lowest of the low), conservative (just say no, kids), and weirdly unaffecting, no matter how much Glenn Gould McQueen lays over the top: our man still ends up riding the same subway train opposite - what are the chances? - the same married woman, and there's still a hope that, this time, the gal might put out. Some sex addicts have all the luck.

Shame opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.


  1. A well written review, but I disagree with quite a few points:

    Initially, " One glaring absence is any credible sense of how these siblings got this way to begin with" - There is a strong hint at the reasons behind this, there's no need for it to be explicitly spelled out in front of you.

    Secondly, "Besides, dare I venture that these aren't problems (boo-hoo, I have too much sex; boo-hoo, I have too much money to spend on sex) that most viewers face at the moment" - I think the phrase "boo-hoo, I have too much sex" spectacularly misses the point; would you rather up your rate of sexual intercourse but enjoy none of it? Also, the fact that it's a little-known problem is kind of key I think. McQueen is suggesting that this is a real condition that we are mostly ignorant of - maybe it's time to take note and start thinking of it in the same mindset as drug or alcohol addiction?

    "and there's still a hope that, this time, the gal might put out. Some sex addicts have all the luck." Again, I think you've missed the point. The hope here is not that she might put out - after all, it's been made very, very clear that for Brandon, sex is no joy. Again I'll raise the same point - if you don't enjoy sex at all, if instead you see it as a necessity, then where's the luck?

    "Or is it simply a shame that he won't or can't settle down; that he's in some way clinging - sadly, desperately - to the hedonism New York represented in the 1970s, and cannot bring himself to let go?" It's certainly a case of not being able to settle down (as exemplified in the scene with his female office co-worker). I also think that it's shown as a very modern, technologically fuelled problem. And hedonism? Doesn't that suggest pleasure, where's the pleasure here?

    "(Only in our fucked-up world could a filmmaker knock out a notionally hard-hitting drama about sex addiction, and see cinemagoers and critics everywhere emerge saying "phwoar, eh?")" - They have? I think one of the most consistent points that I've read in reviews is that the sex is extremely unsexy, and that you may go into the film expecting to the "phwoar" factor with Fassbender etc. but you come out of it with quite the opposite.

    There are a few more points I disagree with but my comment is getting way out of hand. I think that it's possible your preconceptions of sex addiction may have impacted on your opinion, and I think that's a shame (he said it!). There's been no sniggering in either of the screenings I've been to, far from it, everyone I've spoken to about it has taken it very seriously.

    Ultimately, it's unfortunate for you that the film wasn't able to hit the same chords that it hit for me and others. Again, nice review, but our opinions are really polarised on this one.

    1. All valid objections, and - as I said first time round - this is one of those films that invites highly subjective opinions. Believe me, I wanted to see the flawless, masterpiece version of "Shame" that many, including yourself, appear to have seen, but there were too many things that niggled me, and continue to niggle at me, for me to endorse the film fully. (I'll concede that the fact it has continued to niggle at me is evidence of its power.)

      Maybe I missed the secret cause of the siblings' screwiness - films have been known to be too subtle for me - but its absence, if you don't see it, can't help but colour the way you see the film: it's like walking in on episode seven of a series, and trying to make sense of what's going on. I also think that if the film is serious about exploring a particular addiction, it needs to make the reasons for that dysfunction as clear as it possibly can. Without a diagnosis, there's no disease, only symptoms. Sex addiction is a particularly tricky case, in that I'm sure there will be a high percentage of doubters and non-believers in the audience, whereas there probably wouldn't be with a film about drug or alcohol addiction - so why not go the extra mile, and tell us (*inform us*, even) how a person gets themselves into this state?

      The problem with this approach - which, I now realise, isn't so very far from what a video artist might do in a gallery piece, seeking to capture moments, the experiential, rather than anything more narratively conventional - is that it does leave Brandon a total blank on some level, someone who exists solely in the present, rather than in several tenses at once, as the rest of us do. If we saw him more conflicted, more troubled, we might buy his problem more - as it is, his inner turmoil only really comes out in the middle of a threesome, which is no time or place for seriousness, and then in the gay club scene, which - as you've read - I find troubling (and am surprised more people *haven't* found troubling)...

      Here's the best argued negative review of the film I've read, which again picks up on the mysterious blankness of Brandon, and goes further, arguing that McQueen - whether he intends to or not - makes something almost aspirational of it: http://www.newstatesman.com/film/2012/01/sex-brandon-shame-york-margin

      I'll say this for "Shame" - it's one of the few films floating around this award season that yields very personal, very specific responses (almost as though we're having to defend our own position on sex!), and I think we should be grateful for that, at least. (It's no "War Horse", thank God.) It didn't quite add up for me, but I'm glad you found it so fascinating - and remain very happy to discuss it!

  2. A fair retort. The issue I have with going into more detail regarding the underlying causes is that, as far as I'm aware, neither McQueen nor Morgan can understand them. I recall them saying in the Q&A that the sex addicts they spoke to while researching were very reluctant to go into their pasts. To have been more explicit with the underlying causes would have been to assume, which is dangerous territory. I can understand that this aspect might tarnish someone's impression of the film - personally, I became immersed in the idea of a window into the life of a sex addict, I didn't need much more. For the record, Mulligan's character says "We're not bad people, we just come from a bad place." Couple that with a few other visual pointers and I think there's a strong suggestion about the reasons behind their respective conditions.

    Interestingly, the point you make about the gay club scene echoes exactly what I said to a friend of mine after seeing the film on a second occasion. I don't see it as particularly troublesome, but I am surprised that more people haven't called that out.

  3. Perhaps it's the case that the film gives everyone so much to talk about already, they simply run out of room before getting to that particular sequence... or perhaps it's a deliberate attempt to avoid spoilers of a sort.

    While washing up this morning (I get all my best ideas that way; my crockery is PRISTINE), it struck me that maybe "aspirational" is the wrong word for me to have bandied around in my earlier response - the last thing the film does is make anyone want to have more sex (or sex, full-stop), however nice the apartment Brandon gets to bring his girls back to. But I do think that in showing its protagonist as more done to than doing - a slave to his own libido, incapable of individual choice - "Shame" risks making a martyr of Brandon, in much the same way "Hunger" did Bobby Sands. There have to have been specific choices at key moments that left the character in this state - we can't just say "it's all society's fault, too much porn flying around". That may be a factor, but Brandon has surely to take some responsibility for his own actions. (This is why there are odd parallels between Abi Morgan's script for "Shame" and her work on "The Iron Lady", which just assumes Margaret Thatcher's political career was predestined, rather than the result of individual policy decisions.)

    Anyhow, further interesting discussion of the film (and indication of just how divisive it is) care of Radio 4's "Saturday Review" last night (listen again here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qh6g) - think the suggestion that Brandon sleeps around because all he really wants to do is sleep with his own sister may count as the most outre (and tasteless) theory anybody's ventured thus far...

  4. Regarding the Saturday Review comments, I think that is way off the mark. He clearly can't have a sexual relationship with anybody who he has a proper connection with, i.e. his co-worker, and with his sister it's on another level entirely. He can't bear intimate contact with her, they fight and bicker like kids, their relationship seems to exist in a repressed childhood state (we can fill in the gaps as to why).

    It probably does make a martyr of Brandon, just like Hunger. Maybe I'm guilty of being susceptible to that. I didn't look at society as a cause, maybe an enabler instead. However, I'm not convinced that Brandon is fully responsible for his actions, I suppose it depends how you view sex addiction. If it is a crippling psychological affliction and it comes as result of childhood trauma (my take), then he needs help, which for me is one of the film's key points. Where will that help come from? It's a tricky question, and possibly a point that is being raised. Ultimately, he will probably need to help himself, and there's a suggestion that he is trying (the epiphany and subsequent clearing of his apartment).

    It's certainly a divisive film that spurs on passionate debate, which in my view is a huge plaudit. My review also has a few comments on it, here's a link in case you're interested - http://www.impactnottingham.com/2012/01/review-shame/

    1. The reason it's divisive is because the film itself doesn't know what to do with Brandon or his addiction, hence its supposed "ambiguity". It's a confused and curious attempt to make drama without any dramatic detail.

      In my own review - http://idfilm.blogspot.com/2012/01/shame-2011.html - I mention the film disguises its vacuity with "a solemnity begging to be championed by the intellectually impoverished as a work of deep profundity", meaning this is the exact kind of film that prospers in a climate in which nothing much meaningful is being said, artistically, about the world or its people.

      It's mannerist.

    2. Apologies for delayed response to you both - have been sequestered in small, dark rooms these past 48 hours, doing the day job. Enjoyed reading your reviews, as differing as they are in their responses to the film - by way of further food for thought/fuel to go on what I hope is still merely a pleasant and warming fire, may I also introduce two subtly varied takes on the film, courtesy of the New Yorker's film critics?


      (Suspect you'll both find elements to cheer AND boo in these pieces...)