There is a shot early on in Steve McQueen’s Shame, a frame filling close-up on Carey Mulligan as she sings a desperate, melancholic version of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” that is such pure cinema, albeit in a highly stylized and perhaps melodramatic form, but it gets at truth. Mulligan portrays Sissy, the emotionally need sister to Michael Fassbender’s, intimacy challenged Brandon, and her song, performed in an upscale New York City club is one of only a couple fleeting moments that she gets through to him emotionally. Earlier, for a instant or two, you see Fassbender’s face slightly out of focus with low lighting, the visage of a skull, as if to imply he is a drug addict or dying or dead. Shame is a movie about unfulfillment in a time and age where anything is possible, instant gratification for a buck, at any time during the day, particularly in a city like New York.
Brandon has some sort of successful corporate job, and a solid relationship with his boss, David. Despite David’s established domestic life, a wife and two kids await at home, the two of them cruise the nightclubs with after work. David is all manic and eager to please as he tries to pick up, whereas Brandon is silent, mysterious, cool. Brandon has a lot more success at the bars, leading to a series of one night stands. In the mean time, a steady diet of internet pornography, the occasional stalking of an random attractive woman on a subway train. That scene, actually a pair of scenes which form narrative bookends for the film, is also telling. There is an instant, honest – if that is the right word – attraction between this married woman and Brandon, a glance that recalls Nicole Kidman’s speech about mental infidelity and lust Eyes Wide Shut. This woman flashes her wedding ring as if some kind of ward, and nonplussed, Brandon practically chases her up the platform. She escapes, if only narrowly. A tryst with a co-worker in the film further underscores the tug and push of Brandon’s particular condition, there is a hint that something intimate and real might come out of things, and that shuts him down. It must be terribly confusing for her, after they share a warm and charming evening of food and conversation the night before. The movie flits from the woods and incandescent lighting of street level New York clubs with the press of flesh and life, to Brandon’s stark black and white apartment, trapped and isolated on the umpteenth floor of a glass and steel condo. Displacement is further underscored when Brandon listens to a series of desperate answering machine messages which echo in the cold space.
Far away from Blanket Strike prison protest and unconventional biopic essayed in Hunger, Shame feels like a significant step up. This may be a case specific to myself, for as much as I admired the disciplined and virtuoso style filmmaking there, the case of Bobby Sands and his commitment to the IRA and its political status remained walled off, perhaps too mannered. Maybe it was the excessive use of low depth macro lenses in that one, or the first act focus on the prison guard. Either way, I admired it a lot, but there was little to grasp for me beyond the visceral. The malaise that affects Brandon has far more ‘ins’ emotionally. Fassbender gives a naked (figuratively and literally) performance that is all big emoting and subtle stillness in service of making a character that is not realistic per se, but quite interesting as multidimensional embodiment of type. He is the ‘ultimate sex addict,’ an uber-distillation of the themes and ideas that McQueen wants to get up on screen. He is also utterly magnetic and completely convincing. Still the surprise here is Mulligan, whom as Brandon’s sister it is intimated, in a single line of dialogue, that they had a rough childhood (possibly even incestuous.) This line of dialogue is hardly necessary when the emotional and often physical mess of Sissy is in such plain sight. She fucks Brandon’s boss practically right in front of her brother. She begs and pleads for Brandon’s couch to crash on to get her life together. Her proximity to her family, and desperate need for an intimate or emotional cushion to the world, is the crux of the film. These characters and their inability to find some lasting solution to what ails them is a powerful and fitting interrogation of modern western society through a very specific human lens.