Review: Shame

Shame, the new film by artist turned film-maker Steve McQueen, has been reasonably well received. Critics have recognised its quality – McQueen’s almost supernatural attention to detail, the incredible competency of its leads – but it will not win an Oscar; it didn’t even receive so much as a mention at the pre-ceremonies.

In every review I’ve read, and for everything I’ve been told about the film by its PR agency, I’m getting the impression that it’s a hard film to sell, to talk about, even to think about, so maybe this isn’t surprising. There’s something about “Shame” that isn’t easily approached.

 But then here at least are the essentials: Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a successful young chap about town, but he’s also sex addicted and, in other ways, deeply unwell. He spends his days wanking into a porcelain abyss and trying to forget that he has nothing and no-one to live for. When his needy sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to stay in his New York apartment, things get complicated. Brandon’s usual porn/prostitute fuelled regime is upset, and so is Sissy. She laments the poor quality of their relationship, saying “just because we were fucked up as kids doesn’t mean we have to go around fucking each other over.”

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Whatever dark and unspeakable thing happened in their past shadows their adult lives, but it also – in a sense – stays in their history. Is this the Shame to which the film’s title refers? Possibly, or possibly it’s Brandon and Sissy’s everything else, which is so marred with those desperate clasping moments where they seem about to lose their grip on reality. Is Sissy getting better, or is she becoming gradually more unhinged? And Brandon, who seems finally to connect with a woman, seems impulsively drawn away from her and down to the very depths of his inhumane nature

The obvious comparison is with the altogether lamer “American Psycho”, a book by Bret Ellis and later a film directed by Mary Harron and staring Christian Bale. The hero in this story is a corporate type named Patrick Bateman. Patrick kills people for sport, for pleasure and out of jealousy. He is the nightmarish vision of the implicit horizon of the American Dream.

It is a farce, is “American Psycho”, it’s a satire that uses one of the most traditional devises in storytelling, the intrusion of the non-normative. Patrick is an immensely successful and handsome young thing, but this wellness is fractured. Something about his life has made him lose touch with reality. There is a moment, early on in the story, where a foreign dimension intrudes: Patrick, having made small talk about Huey Lewis and being done with that, pulls an axe on a friend. (These scenes work much better in the film version, by the way.) Violence, trauma and success. Ellis is trying to point at the hole in our morality, the question is, is McQueen gesturing in the same direction?

I think not. “American Psycho” is the obvious comparison because Brandon and Patrick look so very much alike, they pursue the same women (or have the same ideas about the women they pursue), they live in the same neighbourhood, they probably live in the same apartment building, but what McQueen is trying to do is very much “realer” than what Ellis attempted.

Slavoj Žižek, the prolific and demiurgic Slovenian philosopher, who I’ve heard called The Hipster Philosopher, may be of particular interest here. He’s a polarising fellow, is Žižek. I’ve been reading his 2010 book, “Living in the End of Times,” where he makes philosophically reasoned argument that the world is about to radically change. “The global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point,” he writes.

Your spontaneous reaction may be: how does this relate? The answer is it’s in the unmaking of all things. Shame is not so explicitly about the morals of capitalism as Ellis’ work, but it has to do with the way capitalism has changed our morals. So make no mistake, Shame is definitely a film about sex.

McQueen has said that “access to sexual content is everywhere and that access has an influence on us every day, whether we’re aware of it or not. Sex is being sold to you with your soda, even with your breakfast cereal.” I have heard anecdotally about a whole generation of young boys who cannot achieve sexual gratification without viewing (or perhaps imagining) pornography. This is what Shame regards, and it’s difficult to talk about because, appropriately enough, it’s a shameful subject.

So where does this leave us? With a problem that we haven’t fully discussed. Not even defined. The problem, in Žižek’s words this time, is that “sex has been commodified.” Shame seems to want to moralise the matter, it wants to take sex and do something more meaningful with it because we are approaching a zero point, a marker where sex will have lost its meaning.

And while I’m not wholly taken along for the ride, I find it a more convincing argument against capitalism than many films and art-works that explicitly target it. It’s the human side of the story, perhaps, about the implicit end-point of humanity, which ends – almost – as bleakly as does this film But it does need talking about, ‘modern’ sex, and the system of shame that surrounds it, and art, says McQueen, “although it can’t fix anything, can just observe and portray. What’s important is that it becomes an object, a thing you can see and talk about and refer to. A film is an object around which you can have a debate, more so than the incident itself. It’s someone’s view of an incident, an advanced starting point.”

Shame screens nationally from February 9.

Jack Jelbart