Shame is a beautiful tragedy about the collapse of a man already damaged, it is painful to watch but impossible to peel your eyes away from. Steve McQueen’s latest feature starring the very talented Michael Fassbender, is a terrifyingly brilliant work of art. The audience is drawn into the protagonist Brandon’s world of profound self-abuse, his disease consuming his life and destroying all his human relationships. McQueen directs with a patient attention to detail and a striking collage of colorful frames, classical music, and an unyielding portrayal of sex. A powerful and evocative film combining an ambitious script and an astounding performance, Shame is one of the most brilliant films of the year.
Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) is a handsome, athletic, charming man in his early 30s living in a single apartment a few blocks from Madison Square Gardens in the heart of Manhattan. He has a good job and works hard at it, yet his personal life is corrupted by a single desire for fornication that consumes him. Brandon can’t maintain a healthy relationship with any woman because of his condition, and he seems distanced from any male friends he has, his is a life of solitary, reminiscent of most addicts. Everywhere he goes he is haunted by a lust for sex, from the flirtatious looks on the subway to the uncovering of his pornographic hard drive at work, Brandon no longer receives pleasure from intercourse, it has become a self-destroying act he must commit over and over again in order to survive, and this is the underlying tragedy of the film.
Soon after the film begins, Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) visits him in the city. Sissy is a struggling singer, whose spirit is so different from Brandon’s confined life. While the siblings do love each other, their relationship is also strained and distanced, with Sissy’s presence fuelling Brandon’s unease. Sissy contrasts her brother not only her other approach to sexuality, but also as she comes with far more emotional baggage. In this way Sissy acts as a symbol of the pain romantic relationships can endow on a person, while Brandon embodies suffering under a different light. We get the sense that they perhaps shared a traumatic experience in childhood, but McQueen wisely ignores that and instead focuses on how the two live with their tensions and how they interact.
Michael Fassbender’s commanding control of character is admirable in Shame, as he terrifically embodies the character of Brandon. Brandon’s indignity is rooted in his compulsive repetition of behaviour that leads to mounting self-hatred. Fassbender’s bold performance pushes limits while at the same time remaining humble to a harsh reality. Actor and director seem to share an understanding of emotionality even in extreme cases like Brandon’s, and their collaboration combines for a great piece of filmmaking.
Steve McQueen’s Shame is an emotionally charged film that borders on the metaphysical in its exploration of human tragedy. The film’s uncompromising portrayal of sex is almost transcendental in its denial of both passion and pleasure. McQueen instead focuses the frame on Brandon’s disposition and his sorrowful pattern of behaviour. A shatteringly honest film with great artistic expression, this is a film that is difficult to watch, but should not be avoided as it is one of the greatest pieces of the year.