If you expect this film to be anything resembling a sexual romp, you’re in for a world of pain. Steve McQueen’s Shame centers on Brandon Sullivan (a dapper Michael Fassbender), an ostensibly successful Manhattanite whose tightly controlled demeanor and regimented lifestyle mask his crippling sexual addiction. Brandon’s fragile veneer of “normalcy” starts to crack when his loose cannon, wild-child sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) invades his home and complicates both his personal and professional life. That’s all there is to it, really: a classic story of addiction and family issues. What makes the film controversial is, of course, the nature of the addiction. What makes it unforgettable are the performances.
Though the film is populated with fine, naturalistic actors (most notably Nicole Beharie as Brandon’s wry, luscious co-worker), Shame is primarily concerned with those twin open wounds: Fassbender and Mulligan. Fassbender’s masterful, award-winning performance in this, his fourth leading role of 2011, should come as no surprise to anyone. When he, seemingly endowed with Magneto’s magnetic powers, locks eyes with a well-heeled young lady in the subway, we squirm just as she does under his confident gaze. When his life begins to fray at the edges, the polished sweep of his leonine mane becoming tousled, those clean-cut, marble features cracking and crumpling with pain, he has our sympathy and pity every self-destructive step of the way. As for Mulligan, those who complain that her acting is, in general, too subdued or “boring” will have to eat their words; this is her most vibrant and loose-limbed performance to date. In a role that could have easily been grating, Mulligan’s impulsive, messily emotional counterpoint to Fassbender’s repression and restraint is irresistibly beguiling.
Among the chaos, Sissy only has a few quiet moments. The most potent being her cabaret performance of “New York, New York.” Mulligan’s voice is fine, if unremarkable, and the discordant, jarring arrangement is uncomfortably slow. But the camera stays on Mulligan through most of the song - director McQueen is excessively fond of long takes - and a few weary wrinkles around her eyes suddenly become clearer on that dimpled, baby face of hers. Watch her eyes; Mulligan tells you everything you need to know, her unshed tears more eloquent than any pleading lyric. That’s McQueen’s artistry at its best: his unflinching gaze reveals vulnerabilities, forcing us to confront uncomfortable realities that most films gloss over. (The man literally made art out of excrement in his hard to watch debut Hunger.)
A visual artist first and foremost, McQueen cleverly threads the idea of duality throughout Shame, peeling back layers and repeating compositions to reveal messy truths. An early, over-the-shoulder shot of a civil sibling interaction is replicated later in a tense, emotionally raw exchange. The familiar gestures of a jogger running in place to keep his heart rate up resurface later during a panicked elevator ride. McQueen also manages the layers of the film’s third star, Manhattan, with a clever, assured touch. The city’s beauty, remarked upon from skyscraper bars and well-appointed penthouses, unravels in nightmarish club scenes and emotionally charged subway rides right through the very heart of it.
McQueen stumbles, however, when he becomes too enamored of his own compositions. For every long take that works there are three that seem unnecessary, making the relatively trim running time of 99 minutes drag. But perhaps that’s the point of the NC-17 rating and the innumerable sex scenes. With repetition, under the merciless gaze of the camera, all the titillation is drained from Brandon’s encounters until, eventually, we feel as he does the unrelenting slap and exhausting grind of it. In the end, though the subject matter ought to be more palatable, McQueen’s Shame does not differ much from his debut Hunger. McQueen shows us something we don’t want to see and dares us to look away. I have seen both and can’t bear to look at either again. I guess I flinched.