I am not familiar with Steve McQueen’s work, but now that I have seen the movie Shame I would like to see some of his other projects. The reason I say this is because I was once excited for the film. After seeing it, I felt as though I was deprived of something. My criticism of the film is not that it was too controversial or that there was too much sex and, “oh bother, my poor baby blue eyes that have never seen such disgusting acts will never be the same.” I certainly cannot complain about seeing Fassbender (all of Fassbender). My critique stems from what was lacking in the film—a story, a plot to complement the beautiful cinematography and acting that was present throughout the film. The problem comes from the borderline between when sex becomes art, and when sex is simply sex.
The film is slow-paced as McQueen skilfully introduces the characters. The first shot consists of Brandon (Michael Fassbender) in bed, staring into space, immobile. Eventually, he rises from bed, nude, walks into his shower to masturbate. This scene is shown repeatedly to the audience to detail the character’s banal experiences, and the repetitious acts to which he is confined in his everyday. The initial scene reveals the character’s sex addiction; he confronts each sexual experience with the same lack of emotion. Moreover, each experience is just as futile, unpleasurable, and detached.
Soon after this introduction to Brandon, we meet his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), an eccentric, unstable lounge singer. Her dress and her behaviour seem to suggest that she is part of an alternative rock or indie group. Instead, in a scene compiled mostly of close-ups, we see she is a respectable lounge singer with an angelic voice and, like her brother, she too is grieving and alone. Her performance even brings a single tear to her brother’s eye. The relationship between Sissy and her brother is not clearly established in her introduction. Having let herself into his apartment using a key he had made for her, she takes a shower. Brandon arrives, believing someone has broken in, and his first words to her are in the form of a threat. She, too, is naked in her introduction, and the two stand in the bathroom together, frightened at first, then angered, then jokingly they begin to talk, and through this conversation she reveals that she has no place to go. In this scene, we see that they are both hurting, that they have had difficult pasts, and that both depend on each other. The film, unfortunately, never elaborates on their relationship or their past. In a climactic scene, Sissy states, “we are not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” This seems to be all McQueen is willing to tell us about the characters. I am not suggesting that all films need to provide the audience with all the answers, and nicely sum everything up into an ending that we understand. I do think, however, that a film should establish character more convincingly than McQueen has done. His film seems rushed, sloppily put together plot-wise given that there is no real attempt at a plot.
The film as a whole is disappointing; however, the musical score is beautiful, the acting is decent, and the shots are nicely done, revealing Brandon’s isolation in a vastly populated city like New York. The writing, too, is brilliant at times. For instance, the first date scene between Brandon and a co-worker is compelling, the natural quality of the language capturing the simplicity and awkwardness of a first date. I feel that the art of conversation here far surpasses the “art” of the threesome, a scene in which McQueen slapped a classical score and through close-ups of Brandon’s face, attempted to reveal his distress, anguish, anxiety, and even shame of his life experiences. A film about a sex addict presents simply that: a sex addict. Anything else you wish to know about his character or any other character, major or minor, is left unsaid, but not the type of ‘unsaid’ that Hemingway perfected in his stories. The ‘unsaid’ does not encompass something profound about the character, but simply suggests that this man, Brandon, thinks of sex, has sex, and is distressed in the having and not having sex.