Director Steve McQueen re-unites with Hunger (2008) star Michael Fassbender in Shame (2011), another visually sumptuous exploration of the human struggle between mind and body. Whereas Hunger focused on men’s ability to suppress his natural bodily drives, McQueen’s latest offering finds itself enslaved by natural impulses, painting a fascinating portrait of the inherent sexual desires which most manage to control through self imposed ethics. Also starring Carey Mulligan, Shame is a provocative and intimate drama built around powerful performances.
Brandon (Fassbender, soon to be seen as android David in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus) is a successful business man living in New York City, having carefully constructed himself an elusive lifestyle which allows him to indulge in his heightened sexual addiction. His troubling reliance on sexual gratification is disrupted when his estranged sister Cissy (Mulligan) arrives out of the blue for an indefinite stay, exposing Brandon’s sickening dependency for gratifying his carnal desires, whilst also leaving his life wide open for examination.
McQueen’s second feature is as raw and explicit as you’d expect from a director with such a strong artistic approach to filmmaking. Every scene pulsates with a dark and dirty aesthetic (amplified by a largely cello-based soundtrack which rumbles beneath the smouldering on-screen action), successfully immersing the audience into Brandon’s world of addiction and brilliantly depicting his mental frailty through a striking collection of washed out shades. Shame may be a film about sex addiction, but there’s little eroticism or titillation to be found in McQueen’s hauntingly bleak drama.
Fassbender’s performance is as astonishing as we’ve come to expect, fully deserving of his Best Actor award at last year’s Venice Film Festival. Like Hunger, many of his scenes are completely dialogue free, relying heavily on an assured and empowered physical performance (in more ways than one). However, it is within the scenes of sibling conflict between himself and Mulligan where the film’s heavily repressed energy (lingering beneath its claustrophobic exposition) successfully ignites – a welcome release of emotions for a film unbearably shrouded in privacy and guilt. Their relationship also subtly represents the crumbling state of traditional family values, which despite the advancement of mobile and social networking has seen a shift away from the close knit dynamics of such relationships.
Despite boasting exceptional star turns by its two leads and being an undeniably visually alluring piece of cinema, there still feels like there’s something missing from Shame. Perhaps the bars been set too high after Hunger, but Shame seems to lack the socio-political punch of its predecessor, resulting in a less emotionally draining and affecting film than expected. However, such a foible is little more than a petty complaint towards what, despite it being January, is destined to be one of great releases of 2012.