Artist/director Steve McQueen’s second feature (following 2008’s Hunger), follows the unravelling New York existence of sex addict Brandon (Michael Fassbender). Living alone, he (seemingly) happily picks up girls in bars, orders prostitutes like takeout and masturbates in the work loos after watching porn on his computer. It’s a tad compulsive, but his outward charm and ability to just about hold it together is keeping people fooled.
Then, his volatile, attention-seeking sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up to stay in his apartment, and things slowly fall apart.
McQueen his co-writer, Abi Morgan, say that the film started out as a love story, and exploration of what drives sexuality. There’s a repetitiveness to the introductory scenes of Brandon’s life that suggests his compulsion isn’t just about fun – it’s trapping him. As he goes about his life, the camera, following his gaze, continually zeroes in on young, attractive women, leaving everything else blurred out in the background.
Then, one evening, Sissy comes to stay, and their sibling relationship brings up a string of red flags. Something happened in their childhood that both cements them together and drives them apart – as Sissy says, “We’re not bad people from a bad place,” but, wow, can they treat each other badly.
Unsurprisingly, as with Hunger, the film is beautifully filmed, with painterly touches. Brandon is almost always wearing royal blue, and is often seen in white sterile environments involving lots of large glass windows. He is willing to be be an exhibitionist in some ways, but he won’t have a proper conversation with his sister. As much as he seeks out sex, he can’t handle intimacy, and he keeps his emotions hidden safely away.
Sissy, in contrast, is often seen wearing gold, or bathed in a golden light. It should complement Brandon’s blue, but it seems to overwhelm him instead. Accordingly, it’s the drama of her inner life that forces Brandon into self-examination.
Shame doesn’t offer any easy answers to the problems of sex addiction or the inability to show love. As McQueen put it, the themes, nudity and sexual acts in the film aren’t there to scandalise, they’re there to reflect life. You do come away from Shame feeling great sympathy for the damaged characters, and hoping that they manage to put themselves back together again.
The London Film Festival is running 12-27 October 2011. For more information, please go to http://www.bfi.org.uk/lff/