Disappointing... yet brilliant

Random and not-so-random thoughts about movies

Shame

Director Steve McQueen

Stars Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale

UK 2011

Language English

1hr 41mins

Colour

Bracingly unsettlingly look at sex addiction

The Beckenham Odeon is a venerable old cinema deep, deep in the South London suburbs that tends to draw a pretty rowdy crowd. That seems to be the case whatever they show there, from Ratatouille to Mean Girls and even, it turns out, when the film is a low-budget arthouse work like Shame, directed by 1999 Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen. When we went to see it, early on a Sunday evening, there was a row full of noisy teenagers. For the first half of the film, they were chatting, chomping, BBMing and generating more of a racket from sweet wrappers than conventional physics suggests is possible. But as the film ground on, they grew quieter and quieter, not even managing nervous giggles during the many disturbing sex scenes. They left in silence, looking traumatised and quite probably ready to sign up to a life of chastity. It’s one of the best proofs of the power of cinema I have seen in a long time.

There is plenty in Shame liable to mess with your head. Many people don’t believe that sex addiction exists, that it is a cheap excuse for movie stars caught banging the nanny. Shame does a good job of making it seem both plausible and quite horrible. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a guy with a good job and coolly minimal apartment in New York City (shades of American Psycho*) who compulsively picks up women on the subway, has call girls come to his home, spends hours at home and at work watching the full range of entertainment available for lonely gents on the internet, and regularly nips into the office toilet to joylessly get himself off. None of it looks like any kind of fun at all.

One day, his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up to stay. He’s reluctant to take her in, and soon furious as her presence gets in the way of his compulsive (and impressively efficient) routine. Plus, she’s pretty screwed-up too, helping to prompt Brandon’s crisis…

The showpiece of McQueen’s feature film debut, Hunger, was a conversation filmed in a single take that lasts around 20 minutes. There is nothing quite that epic here, but there a couple of scenes of at least five minutes with no cuts, the camera focussing unsparingly on some incredibly awkward moments of human behaviour (although there is also one terrific burst of fast edits, too, showing McQueen isn’t fixated on one trick). It’s a beautifully shot film with some extraordinary sequences: a late night run, an indelible scene of Mulligan singing a very, very slow version of New York, New York in a bar, and Brandon’s climatic self-destructive passage through the city, so much more convincing than Tom Cruise’s stroll in Eyes Wide Shut. This is might be the best nocturnal New York movie since the glory days of Martin Scorsese.**

There’s not a lot of talking, almost nothing by way of backstory and no big cathartic speeches. The story is told as much by what isn’t said as what is. Fassbender is a big, stony-faced bloke, an Easter Island head brought to life, while Mulligan is tiny with one of those faces that look like it might crumple at any minute, but it’s easy to believe that they share a (never-explained) history of pain. A word, too, for Robert Montano who gets just one scene as a waiter, but it’s a perfect one.

God knows whether those kids in Beckenham will ever recover, but Shame is both a stunning piece of filmmaking and harrowing character study.

* If in the early series of How I Met Your Mother, Barney Stinson was the lighter side of Patrick Bateman, then Brandon Sullivan is Bateman without the satire.

** The director of photography, Sean Bobbitt, worked on Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland, which is probably my favourite London-at-night film.

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