Film should do one of two things: make you feel happy to be alive or tell you the truth. Anything else is just mucking about. Steve McQueen isn’t interested in the former, but the latter: he’s your man. Hunger was shocking, impressive proof of this and Shame even more so. It’s no fun whatsoever, but is completely necessary.
Michael Fassbender is a kind of automated death gigolo, propelled through chilly NY streets towards the next pummelling, empty sexual fix. He’s scratching a terminal itch, repelling anything that doesn’t adhere to his narrow mindset and mindlessly feeding his mania with a relentless porn habit. He’s possessed by an animal urge and sates this quite easily, as he isn’t the shabbiest looking bloke. But he’s completely out of control and wraith-like, enervated by each encounter.
He picks up a girl at a bar – who his boss has oleaginously failed to entice – with horrible ease, and a quick and clamorous libido-feed down a rainy side street later and he’s momentarily cured. But he’s soon in need of another release: in the shower, in the toilet stall at work, in front of the laptop in his bleak minimalist pad. He’s a total addict, relinquished of every possible distraction that might clutter his consuming focus: the next hit.
And then sis Carey Mulligan crashes in. He has been ignoring her answer message pleas, at one point reaching back to flick the machine off with one hand as he pulls himself off with the other. Heavy-handed, perhaps, but there’s a lot of odd sibling-sexuality stuff in here that’s left hanging which adds to the inextricable murk.
Mulligan is a singer, her typical gig seemingly as the neglected musical periphery of an odious, swanky wine bar. When Fassbender, with his leeringly inept motormouth boss in tow, attends her latest set, there is a mordantly magical exchange between them mid-song (New York, New York) which articulates far more than any expositional interruptions might. It’s a breathless scene that lasts the entire song and beyond, powerful and unequivocal, yet unresolved and suggestive of hundreds of questions never answered, thankfully. But Shame isn’t the kind of film to answer questions: it doesn’t believe there are any. There are situations and occurrences, fates and teeming disquiet. There is humour, but as with Fassbender’s response following a scene in which Mulligan walks in on him masturbating, it’s a laugh likely to be spun into complex terror in a moment.
Mulligan’s arrival occasions something of a rupture in Fassbender’s descent, a contributory factor in the drawing of a few uncomfortable truths into queasy focus. But these don’t hold much purchase and are temporary self-delusions of resolve. Not even another (a quick shot of Mulligan’s multiple slash marks on her arm illustrating beyond doubt something you’re likely to have suspected) suicide attempt by Mulligan seems particularly likely to effect a wake-up call, for either of the siblings. As Mulligan suggests to Fassbender towards the finale. ‘We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.’ Wherever that is, and it’s never made explicit, it’s up in the air as to whether or not their history has a deathly grip on any kind of future.
McQueen is quick to make sure we don’t get any Hollywood-tinged ideas of reprieve: a harrowing attempt by Fassbender to initiate a relationship is foiled by the sheer fact that the whole set-up isn’t dangerous or unempowered enough a scenario in which he can exist. He flops, to put it succinctly, and it’s as difficult to watch a moment as the evening out late-on in the film during which Fassbender seems ready to invite self-destruction with keen and uncomfortable urgency. All this before Mulligan careens yet further into disaster.
There are two shots in the film that don’t quite ring true and are a little too ‘shorthand’ cute. One is the opening shot of a rather elegantly spent Fassbender, blue silk framing a rather pointedly decadent repose. The other is a tracking shot of Fassbender jogging the blues away through the quiet metropolis. The former is too jarringly iconic for such a searing inquest into sex addiction. The latter wants it both ways: any such shot is immediately loaded with reference points that are unfortunately contradictory. In film, you simply can’t expend your ire pounding the pavements anymore, certainly not in a serious film. The wide-angle street jog is synonymous with archly light fare such as When Harry Met Sally, American Beauty and Kramer Vs Kramer, to name three of about a thousand. You cannot introduce stock shorthand into such an endeavour without diminishing returns. If any of this sounds picky, it’s because the film is, whilst not perfect, certainly a carefully assembled, powerful antidote to watered-down cinema otherwise. It’s a smack in the face and such pulled punches are always particularly glaring in such an otherwise uniformly strong, uncompromising film.
Michael Fassbender clearly relishes the opportunity to throw it all in and inhabit such hellish abandon. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role: he’s a superficially coasting unspecified mid-ranking office bod watching the clock roll around for the next joyless depravity fix. His computer is missing one morning: upon it’s return, his boss queries him. ‘Anal, double-anal, cream pies. I don’t even know what that means.’ You sense a moment of relief for Fassbender, a mortifying but conversely welcome moment of conspicuous dread. He’s out of control, and here’s an unexpected but perhaps inevitable intervention. But no: ‘Do you think it was your intern?’ the boss dumbly offers. He is sliding across life without reproach amid a jumble of grimly frantic liaisons.
Carey Mulligan, though, is at least as impressive as the brashly ruined sister, all feigned exclamations and overdone intimacies, accumulated tics and deadly poise. It’s a brilliantly observed, startling characterisation, and a genuinely shocking, admirable transformation.
Shame, which Wikipedia, I find, describes as ‘erotic’, is anything but. But it is certainly a genuinely disturbing, impassioned and important piece of work.