Living in-between: Brandon (Fassbender) waits in 'Shame'

(NB No intentional spoilers – but this does discuss the film in detail)

A film about sex addiction? Given the way in which cinema can be all about fetishising what we see and the way we see it, Shame represents a bold piece of filmmaking but maybe not as you would think. The early publicity inevitably uses that easy shorthand of sex addiction. The film does more, including (but not exclusively) how it alters the action of looking by the way it is made as well as the content of the piece.

Set in New York and starring McQueen’s muse, Michael Fassbender, it follows a man (Brandon) who has the capacity for seduction and the an obsessive compulsion towards all forms of sexual encounters, ones which do not necessitate the intimacy of a full relationship. The arrival of his sister, Sissy, disrupts his carefully organised and guarded world.

Shot using film, the first composition suggests the same kind of textual depth that McQueen achieved in his first feature, Hunger – visceral in its recreation of place and time and simultaneously calling attention to the beauty of the image. However, this film gives way to a very different aesthetic, with striking blues and whites of the typical WASPish New York apartment joining to create an overriding tone of desaturated flatness. Meanwhile, New York itself glitters in the background in several scenes – a stereotype of its symbolic value as the place of all desires. (Something that will be developed in other ways). Early scenes have some resonance towards American Psycho in their evocation of the emptiness of that highly-paid, corporate existence.

Co-written by McQueen with British TV and film writer, Abi Morgan (very well-known in the U.K., most recently for The Hour and the upcoming Margaret Thatcher story film The Iron Lady) there is (a McQ trademark?) avoidance of dialogue for long sequences – relying on Fassbender’s capacity to move through an extraordinary range of emotions (and the performance’s quality testifies to the way in which McQueen is clearly Fassbender’s muse) – and it avoids trite explanations of background and psychological motivations. (Abi Morgan spoke at a festival event about creating “maximum impact with minimum words”). These could be a form of French New Wave characters – glamorous and attractive at times, inscrutable and dark at others. We experience them from the outside in this dispursive rather than concentrative narrative structure.

The theme of alienation plays through the whole film – the central figure struggles with a fear of intimacy that we are familiar with (a modern parallel with Soderbergh’s Graham in sex, lies and videotape and both films share the awkward interactions and missed connections of floundering associations. However, Soderbergh’s film was very certainly about something – sex and lying. In saying what McQueen’s is about, I think we have to start with the way in which the film embraces the experiential level rather than the simply thematic – which seems contradictory given its anti-realist narrative aesthetics (see the trailer below for some feel of this).

This might explain why the odd critic may have commented on being bored whilst watching – isn’t that maybe the point of some of it? McQueen’s mastery of the visual image subtly but relentlessly removes that traditional screen dynamic for sexual imagery so that the true, achingly banal and despairingly repetitive nature of these transactions is viscerally apparent. This is not necessarily new – there are numerous examples of interrupting the audience’s gaze. American Psycho (to return to the earlier example) chooses to go to parody and excess as its means of subverting the glamour (a technique, of course, that relies heavily on audience reading). However, by blurring focus, altering depth of field, holding long on discomforting close-ups (a face, a back of a neck), McQueen does not so much ‘subvert’ or ‘challenge’ typical spectatorship positions – rather he seems to have started from elsewhere. The striking human-ness of some of the flesh is what immediately stands out, the beautiful ordinariness of a face – compared to the dehumanised, virtual forms populating Brandon’s gaze (sometimes physically present, sometimes on screen). In addition, the emotional punch is helped by the symbolic use of the spaces of the city – the way in which the ‘in-between-ness’ of characters’ lives (the streets, the apartment lobby, the subway) is a powerful metaphor for their inner states (the loneliness of the long-distance porn surfer).

Sure – the alienation of modern living is no new theme. But, as in his first feature, McQueen’s filmmaking doesn’t worry about ‘saying’ something original – he just drops you directly into the melting pot to experience those people’s lives through the medium of an artistically stunning image. The intellectual engagement is fully there once we reflect on our discomfort. Discomfort because – as someone noted in a discussion with Abi Morgan at the festival – this is not a film ‘about’ sex addiction, just as Hunger was not ‘about’ a terrorist. I’m going to finish this idea by going off on a tangent to the choice of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (e.g. the famous Aria) as part of the soundtrack (the sound design is another technical achievement). It uses Glenn Gould’s recording which means the music includes his distinctive hum, well-known as part of the texture of his interpretations. Alongside those clean, baroque melodies (so representative of control and purification) the voice of a driven, obsessive, messy human runs along complementing rather than detracting from the music. Elsewhere, Brandon’s sister, Sissy, sings the blues – using an unexpected classic to do so. So, without being ‘about’ anything or one small section of society (sex addicts) – this film rather shows us how people are complicated, how real intimacy can be so unbearably difficult. Not a new theme you might think. But how I enjoyed the power with which that old tune was revoiced by McQueen, Morgan and the others not least by the depth of feeling those beautiful surface images could create.