With gritty simplicity and raw emotional intensity, director Steve McQueen’s Shame becomes the Last Tango in Paris for a new era; a sadly perverse gutter ballet that wallows in sexual addiction and untethered humanity in ways rarely explored in the usually cautious world of cinema. And while Michael Fassbender’s Brandon is solid, he’s no Paul, though to ask anyone to compete with Marlon Brando at the peak of his powers is an exercise in futility. Still, where Last Tango drifts (every scene without Paul is mired in tedium), Shame remains focused, never wavering from Brandon’s punishing descent into a hell of his own making. Above all, this is a work of behavior, where plot devices and obligatory story turns are left behind as scraps of inevitability to be picked over by less gifted filmmakers. Shorn of extraneous detail – we are here and now, as if future and past were luxuries lost somewhere along the way – the film builds, pushes, and literally invades our space with encounters almost offensively private. It’s no great revelation to expose the self-loathing and pain at the core of obsessive promiscuity, but McQueen isn’t showing his cards, preferring instead to leave us with the nakedness of Brandon’s twisted nature. He’s more than a slab of beef; he’s already been prepped, gutted, and bled dry for sport.
For once, I was excited from the opening bell, as the first scene aboard a subway offers a lesson to us all on how to build character with no words and few gestures. As Brandon studies a woman sitting nearby, no dialogue is exchanged, but the glances are so witheringly seductive that the woman practically orgasms on screen. Using ambient noise, long takes, and subtle movement, an entire seduction from start to finish takes place right before our eyes. The woman says absolutely nothing before departing from the train, but we know exactly what she’s thinking. She’s gone over everything in her own mind, and we cheer the result. Such bravura filmmaking is rare amongst new filmmakers, and it does not surprise us that McQueen has worked as a visual artist. He possesses a rare talent for composition, and his use of color and music instill the proceedings with a flair beyond the commonplace. In other hands, the film might suffer from familiarity. Here, it’s practically the opening salvo of a cinematic revolution.
Needless to say, the film is saturated with sex (and yes, Fassbender will inspire a great deal of penis envy), and while most of what we see remains curiously joyless, it’s less the opinion that anonymous intercourse is always bad than the particular experiences of a man who long ago lost any other method of communication. This is no morality play, where bed-hopping is automatically a sign of the devil’s work or even a damaged soul, but simply Brandon’s specific arc of character. Larger issues may indeed be at work, but at this time and place, a single human being has channeled the whole of his life into a crippling preoccupation that substitutes for actual living. Consider Brandon’s boss in contrast, even while he flirts, seduces, and beds assorted women. His methods are a ritualized, almost comical game, and a foolish one at that, but one that insists on a set of rules seemingly agreed upon at some unspecified date. Brandon, on the other hand, operates from need alone, and mere compulsion pushes him into these otherwise distasteful interactions with others. Even the arrival of his sister, Sissy (an extremely sharp Carey Mulligan), is not enough to right the ship, as her pathetic state simply distracts Brandon from the only reality he could ever know. She too is in pain, but he’d rather not be reminded of the consequences over which he claims to have no control. If anything, she’s a version of Brandon he’d like to forget. Shame, fortunately, deserves only to be remembered.