Maybe it was unreasonable to expect so much from director Steve McQueen’s sophomore feature film, but then, Hunger is one of the best art-house films of the last decade. Yet, with Shame, a decidedly more accessible film than Hunger, McQueen somehow lost his insightful edge. What we get instead is a film that tries so hard to say so much, but ultimately says very little, and says even less effectively.
Shame tells the story of Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender, a man with some form of sexual addiction. This gives way to the first problem, which is that the film never really presents him as much more than a guy who likes having non-committal sex and masturbates maybe a little too much. Brandon’s life is given a bit of a shake-up when his sister, Sissy, played by the great Carey Mulligan, shows up at his apartment. This leads to the one thing about the film that really does work: the relationship between Brandon and Sissy.
It’s not entirely clear what went on in their past, though there are some hints of bad things, and maybe even incest. The upshot of this is that their scenes together are amazing. First of all, we are talking about a couple of the best actors to come about in recent years. The tension between them is amazing, and it makes every interaction between them weirdly touching and suspenseful.
I also think McQueen managed to build on some themes of private shame. Brandon is clearly ashamed of his addiction, but he also seems to be ashamed of his life in general. Again, it’s not clear what went on in the character’s past, but it is very obvious that nothing was peaches and cream. Brandon has an inability to connect properly with women, and he keeps his apartment like something of a private prison. When Sissy comes into the picture, his level of discomfort with her being there, living off his things, getting closer to him, skyrockets.
But that’s about all that works well. I suppose it would be inaccurate to label a film ‘pretentious’, but Shame does fit the bill. Scenes like a five-minute blues rendition of “New York, New York” or epically scored sex scenes seem to be there to add meaning and pathos, but end up feeling completely forced and meaningless. Whatever meaning might have been held is lost in a sea of self-indulgence. The majority of the film plays out this way, and yeah, it’s quite a shame.
I wouldn’t call Shame a bad film. There are certainly great aspects, the performances being a good example. But Shame is definitely a big disappointment. It does not work on the whole, and worse still, the air of high-mindedness betrays any real exploration of the issue of sex addiction or even the complexity of the lead character. It’s paint-by-numbers “art”, and that’s not something I can get behind.
You can listen to me discussing Shame with TheMatinee’s Ryan McNeil in his Matineecast TIFF dispatch series here.