British director Steve McQueen was first in Venice back in 2009, donning his artist’s hat and representing the UK at the Biennale Art Exhibition. Two years later and McQueen is back at the Venice Film Festival with his Hunger (2008) follow-up Shame (2011), starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.
Shame is the story of a successful, handsome young man living the high life in New York City. Brandon (Fassbender) has a great apartment, which he keeps meticulously clean and tidy, a well-paid job and more girls than he can shake his stick at. We see him in perhaps the sexiest scene of the film, partaking in some serious eye contact with an attractive blonde woman on the subway.
We then see Brandon in action at a bar and later having sex standing under an overpass alongside the word ‘FUCK’ sprayed on the wall. However, we discover that his cleanliness – wiping the toilet seat before masturbating into the bowl – and promiscuity are part of a complex series of psychological problems.
Bursting his orderly fuck-bubble is his sister, Sissy (Mulligan). We watch him managing to ignore endless messages from her on his machine, only for him to arrive home and find her in his shower. She’s got a gig in the city and is allowed to stay with Brandon on condition that it’s not for long.
Later we hear Sissy crying on the phone, begging her boyfriend to give her one more chance. Sissy is everything her brother is not: she’s messy, needy, unreliable, clad in eclectic vintage and craving intimacy. Brandon and his boss (James Badge Dale) go to the bar to watch her perform: dressed in gold, Sissy sings ‘New York, New York’ – which could so easily be a cliché – but here is poignant and beautiful, the lyrics having resonance for the siblings. In fact, her brother is reduced to tears by her performance.
In no time, Sissy is messing up Brandon’s ordered madness, chatting to his online prostitutes, requisitioning his bed and leaving trails of breadcrumbs around the flat. In a scene that starts out comically as Sissy walks in on her brother masturbating, Brandon loses his sense of humour and his repressed rage bursts to the surface at his sister’s umpteenth curbing of his sexual activity.
Shame has been one of the highlights of this year’s Venice Film Festival. The two leads are pitch-perfect as the scarred siblings, with McQueen’s superb cast matching his fearlessness directorial style through their performances. The film has much in common with Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy (2001); like Intimacy, the sex scenes are far from sexy, and the links between sex and relationships are interrogated. Watching the parallel lives of these damaged people is an enthralling, painful and visually compelling experience.
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