Michael Fassbender continues his unstoppable rise in Shame, an art film that is both hypnotic and brave even when it seems to dare you to look away. You'll come out wanting to scrub yourself with hand-gel but not in a Contagion way.
In director Steve McQueen’s second feature, Fassbender plays Brandon a young executive in New York. He is sharply dressed, handsome and seemingly successful at work; clinching deals in boardrooms with backslaps and shit-eating grins. He is also a sex addict.
If we smirked at celebrities who have claimed this addiction in the past, Shame shows you what that really means, day to day. For Brandon, it’s all chat rooms, fuck-cams, and anonymous shags in back alleys. He cannot get through the working day without digitally relieving himself in a toilet cubicle and his office computer is crammed full of porn (he somehow gets away with that one).
We quickly understand the sex is the outward expression of a terrible loneliness and sense of alienation he feels. The arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) brings this into sharp relief. She’s a session singer whose life is a mess. She needs her brother and the last thing he can do is relate to her and offer a shoulder to cry on. When she rocks up at his apartment, she invades his space and fuels his self-loathing. How can he continue his ordered life of porn, masturbation and microwave dinners with his sister just feet away from him? Between the siblings there is a hint of – well, incest is too strong a word – fraught intimacy.
It seems that Sissy being young and sexually active, and also wanting to hug her brother becomes an exquisite torture for him. It brings out violent tendencies and sends him into the streets of New York. In an memorable scene Sissy takes Brandon’s boss back to the apartment for sex and her brother is spewed out into Manhattan; as the camera follows his long-stride jogging for what seems like an extraordinarily long tracking shot through several NY blocks. Steve McQueen’s fluid camera move captures the moment beautifully, with the eye of an artist who work has included experimental films and sculpture.
Both actors are extraordinary. Fassbender delivers a performance that is alarmingly raw. He strips his character literally bare as Brandon gazes for what seems like an eternity into Steve McQueen’s cameras, in various stages of sexual release – and sadness. You cannot imagine a non-European actor, like contemporary rising star Ryan Gosling, taking on this role. Carey Mulligan also has that skill of revealing emotion on film and making it appear effortless. Both actors’ commitment to their craft includes frank nudity but these instances are true to the material and not glamourised in any sense. I mentioned this was an art film. By that I mean it felt true to life and hard to watch as opposed to reassuring. It is certainly not erotic and, for me anyway, seemed more revealing of its characters inner emotions than Michael Winterbottom's blow-jobs and concerts film, 9 Songs.
Shame seems to scratch away at some darkness in contemporary times, of people locked away in apartments in front of laptops, webcams and mobile phones, grinding away in despair. However, Steve MacQueen’s film has a formal beauty that demands to be seen, like Taxi Driver but in a different palette, different era.