Sunday, 30 October 2016

Steve McQueen's "Shame" – Might as well face it, you're addicted

Last week I reviewed Spike Jonze's 2013 film, Her, and this week it's Steve McQueen's 2011 film, Shame.  Both have a one-word title.  They were released within two years of each other.  They sit three places apart on the BBC's list of 21st Century's 100 Greatest Films.  Both deal with a professional white man's dysfunctional attitude towards sex following a traumatic incident.  Both contain an unconventional sexualized female foil to the lead man's sexual dysfunction: in the case of Her, an AI Operating System, and in the case of Shame, a sister.


Of course there are differences.  In Shame, Brendon (Michael Fassbender) does not have a sexual relationship with his sister.  And Shame is set in contemporary New York rather than the unspecified future of Her.  This last point makes me admire Shame a little bit more than Her because I think it's always harder to pull off a narrative with a wider social resonance when it's based in the here and now, as opposed to a sci-fi setting where basically anything can happen.  Tying a story to the present creates huge challenges in how to lift the narrative from mundanity, how to surprise and excite your audience in comparison.  But when it works, as it does in Shame, the reward is a story with more credibility because it has its roots in the messiness of real life.

Brandon is a sex addict.  His sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), is messed up.  Both their problems come from some shared issue in their Irish childhood.  It's not explicitly mentioned, but the implication is child abuse of some kind, whether sexual or mental or physical or a combination.

Both of them are drawn to sexual encounters with married partners, like Selvy in Don DeLillo's novel 'Running Dog,' as a way to avoid intimacy, avoid long lasting relationships.  Perhaps brother and sister do it for different reasons, Sissy living through one tempestuous and disastrous relationship after another, Brandon more self-aware, more calculating.

Review continues below...

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Brandon relishes the role of cuckolder – at one point he openly taunts the thuggish boyfriend of a woman he is seducing in a bar, making him sniff his fingers.  Fassbender does a great job with the role, just as Joaquin Phoenix did in Her.  It would be interesting to see how a black actor would play it, opening up another layer of complexity to an already complex character due to the traditional role of black men in cuckold literature (usually written by white men, of course).

His use of pornography at home and at work, his constant masturbation, his frequent use of hookers, brothels, sex clubs, pick-up bars, and even a gay sex booth is a welcome realistic portrayal of a sex addict.  Yes, he also has the ability to attract strangers on the metro, in regular bars etc, but it would be a mistake to show his character as any kind of glamorous superstud, and the film does not do that.  It's true that he always seems to be able to perform, while real-life sex addicts generally end up complaining about erectile dysfunction.  The single exception is when he tries to have sex with a woman from work who breaks the mould – she is single, she isn't afraid to call out the weirdness of his lack of commitment, she implies that a longer term relationship is what she wants.

And at the end, after everything he's gone through, does he rise to the bait of the reappearance of a married woman on the subway that he flirted with before?  He holds back but he can't stop looking.  The camera cuts away.

Personal Score: 7/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on the BBC's Top 21st Century films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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