Friday, December 23, 2011

Steve McQueen's Shame: a not-so-festive treat

To say the talent on display in Shame are flavour of the month is an understatement. They’re flavour in the way Heston Blumenthal means flavour, which means gutting a pig seven ways, bending it into a balloon giraffe and making it taste like trout. It’s helmed by artist and Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen, and scripted by multiple BAFTA winner Abi Morgan who, with Meryl Streep-showcasing Maggie Thatcher biopic THE IRON LADY out next year, seems to be singlehandedly flying the flag for female British screenwriters. Oh, and it stars Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, last seen in superhero reboot X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and surprise pulp hit DRIVE respectively. Phew.



Let’s get the important stuff out the way first. Shame is the film my Mum calls ‘the one with Michael Fassbender’s willy’, which sounds like an episode of Friends. If it was, Shame would be the one in which Joey, Phoebe and Monica have a threesome, Ross gets arrested for S&M and Chandler lays off the aspirin in favour of Viagra, ditching witty gags for latex ones. Yes, there’s a lot of sex in this film. But it’s not very sexy sex, and no I’m not going to go back and phrase that more eloquently. Michael Fassbender has sex with everyone, Carey Mulligan has sex with Michael Fassbender’s boss, and Michael Fassbender looks like he wants to have sex with Carey Mulligan except he can’t because she’s his sister.

Fassbender plays city hotshot Brandon, a bachelor with the kind of rugged good looks women can’t resist, and the kind of income which means he can order bottles of champagne and martinis with olives and cocktail sticks. Is it just me or do they look wrong without Sarah Jessica Parker on the other end? But Fassbender has cornered the market in playing charismatic fuck-ups, and sex addict Brandon is exactly that. He’s the kind of guy Chat Roulette was made for, spending his out-of-work hours jerking off over his stack of porn magazines and talking dirty to prostitutes via his webcam, but, as the title suggests, Brandon isn’t happy. He keeps his distance from colleagues and co-workers, and when he isn’t alone in the type of starkly modern flat Patrick Bateman would be proud of, scours the bars and clubs of Manhattan for increasingly squalid encounters which lift his spirits only fleetingly, leaving him sadder, lonelier and more disgusted with himself than ever.



Brandon’s colleague Marianne (Nicole Beharie) na├»vely thinks she can change him. She can’t. Brandon may need the love of a good woman but what he wants right now is a prostitute or three, preferably from behind, up against the wall, and dirtier than Alan Titchmarsh’s knees after a morning spent rolling Charlie Dimmock in the *ahem* flower beds. He’s a man conflicted, and never more so than after the unexpected arrival of younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a pouty wannabe singer with a neat line in Oxfam coats and an inability to recognise when she’s not wanted. Carey does stroppy teenager well, but her real moment in the sun comes during a slowed-down, melancholy version of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York. Can Carey sing? No better than the rest of us, but as Brandon treads an empty Manhattan awash with watery blues and greys, the lyrics take on a timbre which leaves him in tears. He isn’t king of the hill. He isn’t top of the heap. He can’t commit to a functioning relationship and he’s about to spend the next three hours wide awake and listening to his married boss bang his little sister’s brains out.



Outwardly Brandon is furious with Sissy for damaging his career prospects, but Steve McQueen’s direction leaves you with the sense that a deeper personal tension is at play, a feeling amplified when a spot of rough and tumble on the couch turns into a potent, vicious struggle. The atmosphere between the siblings is uncomfortably charged; a further shame is hinted at in their shared past, but this isn’t Hollywood, so nothing is resolved and nothing confirmed. ‘We’re not bad people,’ says Sissy. ‘We just come from a bad place’. The backstory remains as ambiguous as the final image, which leaves Fassbender on his knees in the rain and the audience wondering if the film’s climax - a neat little piece of misdirection where a violent premonition comes unexpectedly to pass – will have any effect on his personal life, or whether he’ll continue down the solitary road he has embarked on, littered with used condoms and HIV tests.

With an unexpectedly theatrical structure, a dialogue-heavy climax and the fact that Brandon is never forced to confront his behaviour directly, McQueen’s exploration of Brandon’s internal conflict can at times feel a little slow-paced. Yet, like Madonna’s stringy upper arms, Shame improves with distance. Despite holding the current top spot for most misleading name in the industry, Steve McQueen puts his Turner Prize-winning visual eye to excellent use; the narrative unfolds in moments and glimpses, and the wordless opening sequence - where Brandon and a pretty women on the subway exchange lingering glances - is mined by McQueen for all the tension and uncertainty he can muster. As the object of Brandon’s attention uncrosses and re-crosses her legs, we can’t help but wonder whether the effect she’s having on him is intentional - and when he follows her off the train, it’s near-impossible to tell whether this is in response to a silent invitation or simply the natural progression of a life spent thinking of, dreaming about and desperately trying not to want sex. Her startled expression suggests the latter, and Brandon is left desperately searching for her on the platform. Shame is nihilistic, sad and frustrating, but it’s also beautifully shot and thought-provoking, with a modulated, tightly-wound lead performance from Fassbender and his supporting penis. I mean cast. Ahem.

For good ol' Don't Panic magazine. Who's panicking? Not me.