Shame (and a bit of Hunger)Saturday, January 28th, 2012 2:13 pm—Film
Shame (UK 2011, Drama), Writers: Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen; Director: Steve McQueen
Hunger (UK/Ireland 2008, Biography/Drama/History), Writers: Enda Walsh, Steve McQueen; Director: Steve McQueen
Watch either of Steve McQueen’s first two feature films, Hunger and Shame, and it’s abundantly clear that this man is a more than just a filmmaker—he’s an artist.
I saw Shame first, a few weeks ago, and was mesmerized. Shame is the most desexualized sex film I’ve seen since Shortbus (see the Shortbus review from July 2007). It spends a few weeks in the life of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a New York City businessman and sex addict. His sexual encounters—which are many and varied—aren’t sexy; they’re sad, desperate and full of self-loathing. But he’s been plugging along, getting through life, succeeding on paper and indulging his compulsions.
All that changes when his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) drops into the city and makes herself at home in his apartment. The siblings have some deep-rooted history that’s never discussed but is always present. It’s some of the best backstory I’ve ever seen, brought perfectly to life by Fassbender and Mulligan, but never belaboured in expository dialogue. What’s clear is that there was something dark in their upbringing, and that whatever it was has left Brandon doing his best to shut out the world and his emotions, numbing himself to everything except what he feels (or tries to feel) during sex, and Sissy doing everything she can to connect emotionally with anyone who will have her (for however brief a time).
Shame is an incredibly sad film. As Fassbender plays him, Brandon despises himself, can’t even stand his reflection in the mirror. There’s a powerful drawn-out threesome in which Brandon displays a plethora of emotions (or, as MF said it best, “a blender of emotions”). It’s in stark contrast to his usual cool exterior, and it serves to show that sex is perhaps the only situation in which he can try to feel or express anything—to find sense in that churning blender. There’s pleasure, to a degree, but more predominantly there’s pain, anguish, rage, frustration, sadness and aching self-loathing.
I saw an interview that featured one of the Shame crew talking about how Fassbender was an interesting and fitting choice to play Brandon because of his prior work with McQueen. In Hunger, Fassbender plays Bobby Sands, the Provisional Irish Republican Army prisoner who died in the 1981 Irish hunger strike. Bobby’s only freedom was in exerting control over his body. Brandon, meanwhile, presents the opposite extreme; he’s a man with every external freedom and opportunity, but he’s imprisoned by his body and by what he feels compelled to do with it. I tend to agree with that crew member. The casting makes for a fascinating study in contrast. And if any actor can go from one end of the scale to the other, and portray both exquisitely, it’s Fassbender.
There are many, many aspects of Shame (and Hunger) that impressed me deeply and deserve attention. But in the interests of time, I’ll touch only on the two that left the greatest mark: McQueen and Fassbender.
McQueen clearly structures his shots not only to tell a story, but also to create art, to portray beauty (even in sadness and pain). Near the beginning of Shame, Brandon walks naked from one room to another, hitting his answering machine to let it play back the message it took while he was fornicating. But the full frontal shot isn’t gratuitous. Sure, there were other ways that McQueen could have shown Brandon retrieving his messages; but in this way, not only do we understand that his nakedness is unabashed, displayed without affection or sentiment, we also see the beauty of the shot, with the dividing wall separating the light that shines from either room, framing the image, creating exquisite contrast.
There are countless examples in both Shame and Hunger of McQueen’s vision, gifts and artistic fearlessness. Shame features a beautiful tracking shot of Brandon running for several minutes through New York City at night. He’s just running, but there’s so much more to see; the scene-within-a-shot is loaded with questions (what’s he running from?) and information about the character (his body seems to be the constant target for his repressed emotions).
Hunger could easily fill a length post of its own. McQueen’s feature debut, which won the Caméra d’Or prize for best first-time director at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, is more experimental than Shame, less conventional. McQueen reveals his love of long shots here even more than he does in Shame. The most noteworthy shot runs more than 15 minutes, featuring a conversation between Bobby and his priest as they talk, predominantly, about the religious morality of going on a hunger strike. But there are other incredible examples, including the shot of a custodian making his way down a long corridor, mopping the filthy hall as he slowly gets closer and closer to the camera.
The film also features several lovely examples of McQueen’s desire to observe, to capture moments. There’s a scene in which one of Bobby’s inmates reaches through the window bars and lets a fly climb onto his fingers, watching, wondering, connecting to something from the outside world—something with the freedom to roam in and out of prison.
Suffice it to say that McQueen is a tremendous talent and, from the sounds of it, a really cool person. His background is in visual and multimedia art; he went to Iraq in 2006 as an official war artist, and was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2011 for services to the visual arts.
Then there’s Fassbender. There are a lot of great actors working onscreen today, and I’ve written about many of my favourites on this blog. Fassbender is absolutely among the best. He’s astonishingly good in Shame, and I’m surprised he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award (but no matter—he’s already won many other Best Actor nods for the role). To see him so good in such a dark, serious, agonized performance, you might expect him to project some of Brandon’s torment in real life. But then you catch him as the young Magneto in X-Men: First Class; or as British spy Lt. Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds; as a deeply troubled, somewhat condescending but intensely passionate Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre; as a charming, boyish bloke with a seedy underbelly in Fish Tank; as a gritty yet surprisingly vulnerable assassin in Haywire; as a restrained, cerebral Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method… Fassbender is equally convincing in every part, no matter how different one is from the next. And if you check out an interview or two of the man, you’ll find a funny, sweet, humble, quick-witted singing Irishman, one who appears to bear no similarities, save physical beauty, to Brandon.
Fassbender and McQueen make an incredible team. I’d make a point of seeing anything either artist is involved with. Shame is a masterpiece, and although I think it missed its beat just slightly in how it ended (the wrap-up takes just a bit away from the subtlety we see throughout the rest of the film), I highly recommend it—as a movie and as a work of art.