(Steve McQueen, 2011)
I love Steve McQueen's style. Theres something magisterial in his compositional sense, and the way he likes to find a single, telling angle on a scene and lets it all play out without editing away gives his work a pleasingly deliberate rhythm. That aspect of his approach reminds me somewhat of both Hou Hsiao Hsien and M Night Shyamalan, but his work has it's own character. There is a coldness to his sensibility, which makes the strong emotional currents which surface near the end of both Hunger and Shame all the more surprising and effective.
You don't expect to be moved after work that is so chilly, intellectual and alienating. And yet you are.
Shame is mainly a character study of Brandon (Michael Fassbinder), a young single executive at a successful Manhattan firm who also happens to be a sex addict. This infects every facet of his life; he goes to work where his computer is "filthy" with pornography. On the way in his searing stare at a married woman on the subway turns into a wordless flirtation-cum-seduction. At home he masturbates, hires escorts, picks up girls in clubs, and has webcam sex with strangers. His life - he has an addicts steady routine - is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of his equally damaged sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan), a neurotic screw-up of a lounge singer who promptly sleeps with his married lech of a boss (played with a nice edge by James Badge Dale) and sets up messy camp in his scrupulously neat apartment, forcing him to confront some emotional issues through her own extreme neediness.
McQueen sets all this in a Manhattan seen through the prism of Brandon's own alienation. He lives in a bubble of his own desire and shame, and this is a wintry, curiously depopulated New York which seems almost timeless; Blondie and Tom Tom Club songs play in clubs (the titles - The Genius of Love, I Want Your Love and Rapture seem almost to mock the loveless Brandon) and the gay club where he ends up during a climactic binge could have come from William Freidkin's 1980 Cruising.
Brandon's relationship - or lack thereof - with Manhattan is stunningly captured in a scene where he goes for a late night run to escape the sounds of his sister and boss in his bed. In a single long tracking shot McQueen follows his run through the city, blocked off by the classical music in his headphones and his own focus and speed.
Fassbinder and Mulligan are fearless and raw throughout, Fassbinder in particular plumbing depths within himself few actors could access. He is never better than in the quietly comic scenes with an attractive co-worker he dates and actually seems to care about. A restaurant date is repeatedly interrupted by an eagerly attentive waiter, and a subsequent sexual encounter rapidly degenerates into agonisingly painful tension when Brandon cannot perform. His final plunge to absolute despair is convincing and moving, and McQueen has tied his addiction to universality by ensuring we see that Brandon drinks a lot and likes the odd narcotic. Any scorn one may have for sex addiction is rendered irrelevant by a close reading of Shame. Brandon is sick, spiritually and emotionally, and anyone can understand that and empathise with the pain and emptiness he seeks to escape from in modern life. Fassbinder's final oblivion is beautifully played in a cracked orgasmic rictus of utter horror which is an amazing piece of acting.
The film is not flawless, but it is still magnificent in places. The implied events in Brandon and Cissy's past are slightly reductively played, though always coy and never explicit. As well as McQueen and the cast, Harry Escott's score and Sean Bobbitt's pin-sharp cinematography are both superb and ensure that this remains a classy piece of cinema thoughout.