Visual artist and Turner Prize laureate Steve McQueen’s second venture into commercial cinema, after his very highly regarded film Hunger (2008), is nothing short of riveting. Shame depicts a week or so in the life of sex-addict Brandon Sullivan, played by Michael Fassbender. Brandon’s routine of obsessive sexual encounters is knocked off-kilter when his troubled sister, Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan), invites herself over for a surprise, open-ended stay. She literally encroaches on his life, sleeping with his boss, walking in on him at inopportune moments, making a mess of his apartment, and worst of all, asking for his attention and affection. At times grazing the incestuous, the relationship between siblings is both the epicenter and heart of the film. Although Brandon’s outward reserve and self-containment starkly contrasts with Sissy’s overbearing neediness, the two are actually distorted mirrors of one another, both on the brink of psychological disaster.
There has been much talk about Shame and specifically Michael Fassbender being unjustly “snubbed” at the Oscar’s given the film’s critical acclaim and Fassbender’s fearless performance. McQueen himself likened it to the fact that “In America, they’re too scared of sex.” This is quite possibly true, especially considering the fact that The Huffington Post very cleverly reduced the film to one aspect, notably, “The Fassboner,” (which was revealed in all its limp and sleeping glory for a total of about four seconds in the open sequence of the film), while the LA Times Blog spread the following quaint rumour: according to a “high-ranking academy voter,” Michael Fassbender’s, shall I say performance, “inspired people to fantasize, and not actually vote.” Even George Clooney joked about Fassbender’s penis in his own Golden Globes acceptance speech, asserting that Fassbender could “play golf with [his] hands behind [his] back.”
All jokes aside, there is nothing racy about this film. Any sex or nudity depicted, whether it be initiated by a male or a female, is ugly, cold, clinical, rough, and so claustrophobic that it leaves little possibility for enjoyment or arousal. Desperation rather than eroticism pervades every scene. Perhaps what truly disturbs or strikes a chord with viewers is the fact that Brandon is neither a type nor a caricature. He could be any handsome and mysterious man on the subway. Fassbender also somehow manages to display a sort of quiet, emotional vulnerability in a man who is at times explosively angry and completely overcome by his addiction.
McQueen, whose film aptly demonstrates his fondness for long, quiet shots, excels at creating moments of beautiful tension. These, along with Brandon’s sexual exploits and struggles, are best viewed in the partial anonymity of the cinema.