ADDICTION is no laughing matter, although it once was. Not so very long ago, habitual drunks were considered funny (Chaplin and other silent comics specialised in drunk acts) but are they so funny today? Whether the addiction is to alcohol, gambling, smoking or other forms of drugs, it can, if uncontrolled, lead to sickness, family break-ups, a lonely life, early death.
Shame, the new film by the very talented British director Steve Mcqueen, is about a man addicted to sex. This, too, could have been the basis for a raucous comedy, and has been in the past. Billy Wilder’s caustic Kiss Me Stupid (1964) starred Dean Martin as an entertainer so obsessed with getting ‘‘ action’’ every night that he would complain of headaches the next day if he were to be deprived, and this was played (successfully) as farce. Mcqueen takes a diametrically opposite approach; as we saw in his awardwinning first feature, Hunger (2008), he’s a very serious filmmaker.
Hunger was also about a form of addiction: political addiction. The central character was IRA militant Bobby Sands, who starved to death in Belfast’s Maze Prison because he refused to compromise his political principles. He was played by Michael Fassbender, an Irish actor born in Germany, whose fine performance as Sands won him several awards. Fassbender and Mcqueen collaborate again in Shame.
The central character is Brandon, a successful, handsome and young whitecollar worker who lives alone in a modern, minimalist Manhattan apartment. It isn’t exactly clear what role he plays in the upscale office where he works — something financial or legal or both. At any rate, he’s clearly good at what he does, earns a substantial salary, and lives the good life.
For Brandon, the good life centres entirely on sex. In an early sequence he makes eye contact with an attractive woman sitting opposite him on a subway train, only to lose her in the crowd, and, indeed, it seems that whenever he’s not working at his job he’s either engaged in sex or regaling himself with internet porn. He’s not interested in long-term relationships and he doesn’t see the point in marriage (‘‘It doesn’t seem realistic’’). Instead, he picks up attractive single women in smart bars and takes them home for one-night stands. Or he’ll hire a call girl. Yet despite engaging in consensual sex with a parade of beautiful and available women, Brandon doesn’t seem to enjoy the experiences very much.
Things change with the unexpected arrival of his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who startles him by emerging naked from his shower one evening when he returns home. Sissy has come to stay. She has no money, no real job, no partner, and it seems as though she has turned to her brother as a last resort. It becomes clear there’s a difficult, possibly traumatic, backstory involving the siblings, whose relationship seems almost incestuous at times (one night, feeling cold, she gets into his bed). He’s furious when she has sex with his married boss, David (James Badge Dale) — furious, or jealous? She also cramps his style. Bringing women home isn’t so easy when Sissy might turn up at any moment.
One of the film’s most powerful scenes occurs in a nightclub where Sissy, who has aspirations to be a singer, has a gig. She sings a very slow version of New York, New York, her eyes fixed on her brother, who is visibly moved. Clearly there’s more to their relationship than Mcqueen and his co-screenwriter Abi Morgan are revealing to us.
Perhaps herein lies the clue to Brandon’s addiction, though don’t expect Mcqueen and Morgan to spell it out in any kind of detail.
Another crucial scene illustrates Brandon’s inability to commit to a normal relationship. So far we have only been allowed to see him involved in loveless onenight stands or self-abuse, but his date with Miranda (Nicole Beharie), a fellow worker from his office, is different. They have dinner in a smart restaurant, their meal frequently interrupted by an intrusive waiter (Robert Mantano), but the aftermath — a long, disturbing sequence set in a hotel room — is a clear indication of Brandon’s problems.
Shame is a British film, though one of its producers, Emile Sherman, is Australian. Sherman’s filmography to date includes such important films as Rabbit Proof Fence, Candy, Disgrace, The King’s Speech and Oranges and Sunshine, so he’s clearly dedicated to making films of quality that will also, hopefully, be seen widely by audiences. There’s no obvious Australian connection to Shame in terms of casting or content, but it’s another prestigious production for Sherman.
In interviews, Mcqueen, who studied at London’s Chelsea School of Art and who has distinguished himself in a variety of different media within the arts, including sculpture and still photography, has suggested he originally wanted to film Shame in London but was unable to find anyone in that city who would talk to him openly on the subject of sex addiction and how it operates. Apparently New Yorkers weren’t so reticent, which explains why the film was made there — and the Big Apple provides a very potent setting for the drama.
Reactions to the film will depend on how you see Brandon. For many he will probably represent the worst aspects of capitalism, the kind of inside operator who helped bring about the financial crisis and who lacks basic morality both professionally and personally. Others may see him as a flawed, tragic character, a man unable to control his compulsions; potentially a dangerous man, a kind of American Psycho.
However you view him, Brandon, as extraordinarily well portrayed by Fassbender — in a frank, open, no-holds-barred performance — is a compelling character. Mulligan’s Sissy, too, is memorable: vulnerable, potentially tragic, a party girl on the surface, but in reality desperately needy.
Praise is due for Sean Bobbitt’s cool, crisp widescreen photography and an intricate soundtrack that encompasses Bach’s Goldberg Variations along with the sounds of the city Brandon has made his home.
Why the title? Shame isn’t an emotion Brandon seems to experience; if anything, he’s shameless. Are Mcqueen and Morgan suggesting, perhaps, that we, the audience, should be ashamed at what Brandon and his world of corporate high-flyers represent? That’s another question the film raises and then leaves the audience to work out for themselves.
Michael Fassbender is Brandon in Steve Mcqueen’s new