Since its debut last month at the London Film Festival the buzz around Steve McQueen’s second directorial outing Shame (the first being 2008’s Hunger) has been impossible to avoid.
Following Brandon’s (Michael Fassbender) struggle with sex addiction and complicated relationship with his cabaret singer sister, Sissy, (Carey Mulligan) Shame takes us on a dark journey of addiction and self-destruction. Brandon is a high-flying (though non-defined) business man who admits to never have had a relationship for longer than 4 months who is so addicted to sex he watches porn around the clock, masturbates at work and picks up one night stands at any opportunity. As his relationship with his sister begins to break down, so does his vision of himself as he starts on his journey of understanding that perhaps his sex filled life isn’t without its troubles.
Incestuous undertones run throughout the film, further complicating Brandon and Sissy’s relationship. Before she’s even on screen, her pleading answer phone messages (which Brandon consistently ignores) could be those of any one of Brandon’s pick-ups. Her stark-naked introduction when Brandon walks in on her in the shower reveals a startling comfortableness between the two. Brandon only half-heartedly tries to cover her up by throwing a towel and she seems even less concerned with her nudity in the face of her brother. Similarly, when Sissy walks in on Brandon masturbating her shocked but amused reaction is pretty relatable whereas his is sexually loaded. Originally thinking he was simply play-fighting, Sissy enjoys the frivolity but when Brandon goes on to pin her down and restrain her, with the thin sheet covering his modesty falling away, it’s hard not to think of an act of sexual violence.
An unrequited sexual love could explain Brandon’s sex-addiction and Sissy’s emotional fragility. He can’t have sex with the one woman he really wants to so over-compensates tenfold and she doesn’t feel loved in the way she wants by her brother who frequently denies her requests for affection. Sissy also sleeps with Brandon’s boss in his bed, perhaps this was an act of sexual projection on to her brother or at the very least an insensitive attempt to make him jealous? Either way it’s a definite indication of an intimacy far beyond that of average siblings.
However, it could be argued the pair’s sexually drenched lives have left them so desensitised to the intimate, their strange relationship is more the only way they know how to express themselves rather than anything incestuous.
This ambiguity and heaps more besides makes the film a deeply engaging work but the almost complete lack of Sissy’s perspective detracted slightly for me. I was desperate for just a little of bit of the action from her point of view or at least a little exposition of her inner-workings.
Brandon’s visit to a gay sex club being undeniably portrayed as the nadir of his depravity was also slightly jarring in its suggestion that homosexuality is the ultimate hedonism. Undoubtedly it’s an act of sure sexual desperation on Brandon’s part but it could have been presented in more flattering light to the gay community.
The long shots result in some stunning visuals and are testament to the strength of the central performances. Both Fassbender and Mulligan throw their hats firmly into the ring for next year’s Oscars with sublime portrayals of a broken, yet not defeated, man and woman. The bar scene where Sissy sings a stripped down version of New York, New York is particularly poignant with the camera unflinching from a close-up of her face throughout the entire first verse and chorus then cutting to Brandon’s powerful reaction for the next.
With moments of pure cinematic and emotional beauty played against the seductive vulnerability of the lead characters, Shame easily takes its place as one of the best films of the year despite these couple of small issues.
Shame is on general release 13th January 2012