tue 16/07/2024

Shame | reviews, news & interviews



Sexual exploits fill the emotional void in Brandon’s life, until his sister comes to stay

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) stares into the emotional void that sex cannot fill

When it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, Steve McQueen’s second film, Shame, got rave reviews from male critics. Michael Fassbender (who played Bobby Sands in McQueen’s splendid debut feature, Hunger) is brilliant as Brandon, a successful thirtysomething New Yorker. His screen presence is so appealing that one could ogle him for hours and if, indeed, that is his body sauntering naked past the camera, he is well hung as well as handsome.

Like Hunger, Shame explores bondage, but of a different kind: Bobby Sands was in prison, while Brandon is free but imprisoned by his addiction to sex.

The film is superbly directed and beautifully shot; so what’s not to like? The characters and the plot. The characters are so stereotypical that the cliché undermines the whole enterprise. Brandon lives alone in a Manhattan high-rise because intimacy scares him witless; his longest relationship has lasted only four months and, although he can hump strangers like a demented rock drill, he fails to get it up for a sexy work colleague because she wants to connect emotionally as well as physically.

His sister (Carey Mulligan), on the other hand, is a feckless and needy bottle-blonde reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. And while everything about Brandon is hard – from his chiselled features, toned body and sterile glass-and-steel environment – his sister is as soft, pink and squidqy as meringue. Called Sissy, the moniker given by school bullies to boys showing any sign of sensitivity or “weakness”, she is obviously her brother’s nemesis.

If I give the script the benefit of the doubt and see the siblings metaphorically as two sides of the same coin (together brother and sister would make a whole person, while separately each is a failure) I might forgive the caricatures; but most viewers will come away despising weak women and glorifying heroic, though flawed, men – their prejudices confirmed, in other words.

Then there’s all the alienated sex. Brandon fills his emotional void with sexual exploits, whether it be devouring porn – his office computer is so awash with hardcore that it has to be sent away for “cleaning” – prodigious wanking, picking up women in the subway, pumping prostitutes, having sex in the street with a stranger or blow jobs in a gay dive. The soundtrack lurches from one extreme to the other – from Bach fugues to orgasmic moans and gasps – and while the sex is tastefully filmed, it is still distasteful since it consists of the anonymous rutting typical of porn movies, in which the man is cast as a high-performance machine functioning at full speed with no variables and the woman is an object that requires relentless drilling.

I’ve had lovers like that; afterwards, you feel like applauding their performance (with a slow hand clap) because you are more a witness than a participant – acted on, but not engaged with. And the problem seems to be growing: young women complain about boyfriends whose sex education comes from porn and so assume that girls like mechanical sex when, in fact, they find it supremely boring (no pun intended). Shame would have us believe that Manhattan is full of females eager for anonymous coupling.

Brandon manages to keep things under control (just) until Sissy turns up begging for emotional and financial support. The scene in which he grabs a baseball bat to confront the unknown intruder (Sissy in the shower) evokes classic images of the strong-man Hercules wielding a giant club and gay pin-ups who use phallic accoutrements to imply virility. And I’m sure that, as an artist, McQueen is aware of these precursors. 

But Brandon’s phallic weaponry proves no match for Sissy’s naked vulnerability. The fulcrum of the film is a long, lingering close-up in which she sings "New York, New York" in a swish club for a clientele that includes Brandon and his boss. Her plaintive rendition brings tears to her brother’s eyes and flips an emotional switch that he prefers to keep in the off position.

When he arrives home to find Sissy in his bed with his boss, it’s the last straw; after much wall-punching, he escapes into the night to release the tension with a long, hard jog. When she later snuggles up beside him in bed, Brandon freaks out. Whereas her need for brotherly love is innocent, his feelings are clearly incestuous; it's his attempts to avoid his illicit desire that drives him into the arms of strangers and sex workers.

Who, though, is Shame meant for? McQueen co-scripted the film with Abi Morgan, who wrote The Iron Lady. I can see it appealing to predatory young men but, despite Michael Fassbender’s good looks, for women it is a dispiriting experience. Saving the day are McQueen’s inspired directing and Fassbender’s powerful acting; he comes across like a grenade with a faulty pin, in danger of exploding at any time.

And there are some superb shots. While eyeing a young woman on the subway, Brandon’s face is briefly transformed into a pallid, out-of-focus blur resembling a skull and, later, when desperately trying to climax with two prostitutes, his features distort into an anguished mask that similarly resembles a death’s head - though here it's acting genius rather than technical wizardry that produces the chilling effect.

Instead of exploring the fascinating and taboo subject of incest, Shame focuses on the alienated sex that Brandon uses to divert attention from his real desires. And his depressingly familiar solution is the film’s downfall – except, that is, for porn addicts everywhere.

  • Shame is on general release from Friday, 13 January

Watch the trailer to Shame

Brandon fills his emotional void with sexual exploits - devouring porn, wanking, pumping prostitutes, having sex in the street with a stranger or blow jobs in a gay dive


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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Cracking stuff. The review not the film.

Some parts of the review are astonishing (and not necessarily in a good way). The story appeals to predatory young men? I thought this was 2012. I'm a woman who thought it was an amazing piece of work for many different reasons... a sobering and eye-opening experience. Please don't speak in the name of all women, especially when the piece stereotypes it as a pleasing experience for predatory men vs. a dispiriting one for women (inferring: non-devious and normal-thinking). How judgmental and embarrassing!

I whole-heartedly agree with this review. I actually attended a Q&A with Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan and they both seemed reluctant to admit or say that there was anything incestuous about Brandon and Sissy's relationship when I actually thought that it was almost the crux of the plot and almost debased his supposed attempt at normalizing sexual addiction. Steve and Abi made a point that sexual addiction happens to very normal people but by suggesting incestuous undertones I think they put it into a different ball park. I thought that's where her neediness came from, her comments about 'not being bad people' and the underlying reason for HER 'Shame' and ultimate suicide attempt. I think ultimately for me that overtook the films message.

Fantastic review - hits the nail on the head. Very stereotypical characters. I think it's a shame (ha) that on such an important subject matter, that they (writer/director) chose to go for characters that had already been damaged in some way - therefore, for some audiences, it is easier to feel disconnected from them and seen as 'others'. I would have thought it would be far more radical to make the characters just like 'us' - presenting a mirror to the audience. Disappointed at the Q&A and baffled as to how Abi Morgan has got so much work as a writer. The way she proudly spoke about the awkward date scene in the film was if she'd tapped into something incredibly ground-breaking - as if we've never seen an awkward date scene in cinema before. Gah! I also found the accents from Fassbender and Mulligan very distracting. Mulligan's seemed to dip into English (not Irish, as it suggested they were raised in Ireland).

Not sure I agree with this. The performances were anything but stereotypical - Fassbender and Mulligan are superb - and the alienating feel backs up the film's major theme - sex without intimacy is meaningless. A fabulous film.

I find it disquieting, particularly given the length of your review, that you use the word “addiction” only once. You seem more interested in taking offence at the film’s depiction of sex – the “alienated” nature of it, the “relentless drilling” and “anonymous rutting” – than paying any attention to what the film is actually saying about this behaviour. This is not a portrait of a healthy man, and to complain about alienated sex in a story about the horrors of sexual addiction is rather like decrying Requiem For A Dream for glorifying drug use. As a woman who found the film incredibly resonant, I’m bothered by your assumptions about viewers’ gender divide. Why do you say “for women, it is a dispiriting experience”? I’m not sure whether you see sexual addiction as an exclusively male experience, or indeed the desire for anonymous sex, but to suggest that the only people who will get anything from the film are “predatory young men” is offensively and dangerously narrow-minded. By presuming to speak for your entire gender, you’re making precisely the type of crass gender-based generalizations that you seem to abhor in Shame. You conveniently reduce Marianne, the woman Brandon goes on a date with, to “a sexy work colleague” and fail to discuss her role in the film at all – understandable, as she doesn’t fit terribly well into your “weak woman” argument. There is nothing about this character that is soft, pink or squidgy, and while your points about Sissy are well made I think you’re again taking a vast, ill-advised leap to say that the film encourages viewers to “come away despising weak women”. On a side note, if you genuinely doubt that Manhattan after dark is filled with people of both genders willing to have anonymous sex, I’m afraid you are mistaken. This is not a self-serving male fantasy – it is reality. The comment on young girls complaining about their boyfriends’ mechanical sexual technique is an interesting one, but it deserves more than to be shoehorned in as a tenuous criticism of this film. Shame is not glorifying Brandon’s lifestyle. It is not saying that this is how people should have sex, or that this is how most people do have sex. It’s showing us somebody who is in psychological crisis. Why on earth would the sex he has be portrayed as anything other than mechanical and isolating? You complain that instead of focusing on incest, Shame focuses on alienated sex. Why not review the film that it is – a portrait of a man who’s unable to have anything other than alienated sex – rather than the film you would like it to have been?

I absolutely agree with your comment. This is a silly, badly written review, much below the arts desk standard. N.

Agree with Emma. Sarah Kent's caricature of gender reactions to this film are pure supposition on her part, and quite absurd. I don't see anything in the film to warrant such sexist generalisation, and appear to be a reflection of her own prejudices rather than anything to do with the film. There is nothing to suggest that men, and only men, will read this film so perversely as to turn the implications of the character's actions completely on their head. I thought the performances were very good, but I didn't think the writing or the psychology was convincing. I find it odd that Steve McQueen chose to set this in the 80's, which invites comparison to far better treatments of this era, from novelists like Brett Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. American Gigolo was also a better realised film in similar territory. Hunger was a far better film, Shame is a disappointing move to more glossy film making from someone I expected more from.

Thanks! I'm curious what gave you the idea that it was set in the 80s, though - it's clearly filmed in contemporary Manhattan, the laptops and computers are all modern, Brandon has an iPhone, his boss is seen Skyping, the internet exists...?

Whereas her need for brotherly love is innocent, his feelings are clearly incestuous; it's his attempts to avoid his illicit desire that drives him into the arms of strangers and sex workers. Seriously? I really don't think that was the point of the movie at all...

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