Shame Intrigues, but Does it Resolve?

SHAME (2011)

Directed by Steve McQueen

Fox Searchlight, NC-17 (explicit sex), 101 minutes


Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan

Steve McQueen directed Hunger in 2008, a harrowing film about the 1981

Northern Ireland hunger strikes, in which Michael Fassbender very effectively played Bobby Sands. Now McQueen takes a dubious risk portraying a man who is addicted to sex. Take a deep breath - this is not all it might appear to be. Fassbender plays Brandon – an upwardly mobile New Yorker living in a high rise apartment on 28th Street. Brandon's tempestuous private life, which allows him to indulge his sexual addiction, is disrupted when his sister Sissy–played with brilliant intensity by Carey Mulligan–arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay.

Her highlight is her funereal club performance of the song “New York, New York,” witnessed by Brandon and by his boss, who lusts after Sissy. Everyone seems to be addicted. Performances are excellent throughout - including Brandon’s creepy office colleagues imprisoned in their high-rise office in the same way as Brandon is in his apartment. But, for me, Mulligan is the real star. She goes full tile at the dialogue and appears to be as damaged as Brandon and in need of the same emotional support, the difference being that she’s open about it and he isn’t. Addiction is a fascinating topic from so many viewpoints: psychological, neurological, biochemical, sociological, legal, moral.... It’s a good example of the complexity this film seeks to address. At what point does a brain-state become something that removes personal responsibility? Does it ever? After all, we are our brains.

Whether the film successfully tackles any of these issues is problematic, but it does hint at them at several points along the way. However, I suspect McQueen also has a prurient interest in Brandon’s sexual proclivities, even when we are asked to accept them as a critique. Something tells me the line between this and fascinated appeal is crossed many times. In the end, this is a difficult film to love, but it’s one to admire from a technical point of view. New York is a city of blinding lights, shot through with dark blues and greens reflecting the coldness of Brandon’s apartment. Told through a series of flashbacks and anchored in the early 1980’s prior to the worst AIDS/HIV scares, it gives McQueen the freedom to accelerate though Brandon’s wild life. It certainly asks many questions, but whether it resolves much is hard to say.--Lloyd Sellus

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