The British artist Steve McQueen stormed the more arty quarters of the movie world in 2008 with ‘Hunger’, his film about IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. His second film, ‘Shame’, with Michael Fassbender as a slick New York bachelor who has a complicated relationship with his sexuality and Carey Mulligan as his younger sister who imposes a rare visit on his outwardly ordered and successful Manhattan life, is a little more conventional in form. But it’s equally courageous and probing in its investigation of the extremes of human behaviour. Like ‘Hunger’, ‘Shame’ is interested in the stark immediacy of one man’s world and drawing us into that world without judgement or easy explanations.
Fassbender builds on his work with McQueen in ‘Hunger’ to offer a nuanced tragic portrait of Brandon, a man who lives alone in his neat, upscale apartment and works in an aggressively male corporate environment. His public charm masks deep private troubles at which this story, set over a few days, only hints. He enjoys random sexual encounters, hires prostitutes, indulges in online porn and masturbates in the toilet at work. Taken alone, none of these things are so shocking and nor does McQueen, working here with co-writer Abi Morgan (‘Brick Lane’, the upcoming ‘The Iron Lady’) present them as such. Yet, taken together, they offer a sketch of a man addicted to sex. McQueen frames the actions in a steely, unflinching style, neither gratuitous nor coy. He takes us into the bedroom and under the sheets but does not even border on eroticism. Explanations are scarce – it’s down to us to make assumptions about the reasons behind Brandon’s behaviour.
Two key encounters throw light on Brandon’s condition and suggest darker reasons behind his active sex life. His sister, Sissy, comes to stay, seemingly after or in the middle of a break up, and their relationship is awkward and troubled. She thinks nothing of taking his smooth, big-mouthed and married work colleague (James Badge Dale) back to his apartment and bed. Emotionally, they’re completely disconnected, although Sissy crawls into bed with Brandon at night seeking comfort (he screams at her to leave) and when she walks in on him wanking in their toilet he leaps on her in a childlike fashion, like siblings squabbling, but with troubling undertones. You come to imagine that they have some shared family trauma with which they have not even begun to deal – but this is as far as McQueen goes to explaining Brandon’s personality explicitly.
The other telling foil for Brandon is a work colleague, Marianne (Nicole Beharie, a warm, tender presence), with whom he goes out on a dinner date. Brandon soon explains his bafflement at marriage and any sort of coupling and their relationship stalls when they reach the bed. Before then, the pair share a strong, comic and easy scene in a restaurant as they negotiate dinner while an over-attentive waiter buzzes around them.
Mulligan is very much a side-player to Fassbender. Although her character, Sissy, recurs throughout the film, the focus is not so much on her, and she struggles to communicate a lot with a little. She has an entrancing scene in which she sings a slow version of ‘New York, New York’ is an upscale city bar and McQueen lingers long on her face in close-up. The scene has the same pausing and captivating effect of those scenes of musicians that Pedro Almodóvar loves to put in his films. Early on, when Mulligan first appears, you briefly wonder why two British actors are heading up a New York story, but the story reveals in passing that they moved to New Jersey from Ireland as kids, and this is only a minor worry. Both actors offer strong work, especially Fassbender: as in ‘Fish Tank’, he plays on his ability to mix charm and beauty with a more reckless, dangerous undercurrent.
In the end, despite so many naked revelations – so much flesh and so many encounters – Brandon remains a mystery. The film leaves us with a sense of cycles repeating themselves. There’s a welcome and appropriate absence of closure, even though McQueen and Morgan are not bold enough to leave their immediate story hanging in the same open-ended and provocative way: they round off this chapter in Brandon’s life with an event which is a little too conclusive – too obvious, even – for the film that surrounds it.
That event might trouble in the moment but it doesn’t sink the film. Far from it. After ‘Hunger’, McQueen has immersed himself in a wholly different world and made a film that is similarly distinctive and exploratory and grasps you from beginning to end. He has also succeeded in making a film about an extreme character that doesn’t feel so divorced from everyday sexual desire and behaviour. You imagine McQueen feels there’s a lot of many – or all – of us in Brandon, even if his troubles feel quite uniquely tragic in the moment.