Steve McQueen’s Shame is an absorbing contrivance, an adult Steven Spielberg movie substituting orgasms for sentiment. The protagonist is Brandon, in his 30’s, rather coldly attractive, pulling down good money in some kind of boutique New York firm, living in a Manhattan apartment, and almost entirely consumed by sex: online porn, casual hook-ups, prostitutes, solitary masturbation in the company washroom (he says, presumably truthfully, that his longest relationship lasted four months). If he were left alone, this might all be grimly sustainable – we can’t really tell – but he has a sister, who turns up near the start of the film to mess with his routine and his mind. He toys briefly with the idea of a more normal relationship with a co-worker, and when that doesn’t work, cranks up the extremity of his behaviour, as if longing to be judged and sentenced (and redeemed?); the film leaves it unclear how successfully he navigates through this personal hell.
Shame has been widely praised. Its star Michael Fassbender won the best actor prize at the Venice film festival, and it made the Globe and Mail’s list of the year’s best pictures. In a year-end Globe article (portentously titled Twelve 2011 movies that moved spirit and soul) Joanna Schneller noted some conflicting views of the film, but went on: “I still maintain it’s the film of 2011, because it’s so about this moment in time: the nexus we’re living in of social and sexual freedoms, technology that should but doesn’t always make us feel more connected, and (most of all) unprecedented access to pornography. Believe it or scoff at it, but you should see it.” Well, I’m not sure that believing or scoffing constitutes the universe of available choices, but regardless, I can’t see how Shame is in any meaningful way “about” these matters. The point about technology, for instance, is hard to avoid in any summation of our age, even if most commentaries about it just get tangled up in trying to disentangle the ironies. But wherever that may be leading us, Brandon’s contortions aren’t much of a medium for illuminating it.
Insofar as I can think my way into the head of a sex addict, it seems to me (like all addictions really) it would be a big drain on your time and/or your money. In age-old Hollywood fashion (regardless that it’s actually a British production), Shame skates over both of these – Brandon has no apparent problem financing his high-class call girl budget, and although his job must surely be demanding, he seems to have plenty of time to wander the streets, or sit around looking pained, or suchlike (the movie’s sole concession in this direction is to make a few references to his habitual lateness). Of course, McQueen could easily counter this objection – the movie is about Brandon’s spirit and soul, he might say, not about his calendar. Or he might just say, this movie isn’t about all those other mundane sex addicts, it’s about this unusually privileged one. But that’s why the movie seems to me aligned with mainstream melodrama – whether we’re looking at space aliens or at the contortions of a tiny elite, we’re not looking at a meaningful version of ourselves.
That title, Shame, of course, isn’t exactly unironic, and as the film proceeds, McQueen stirs the psychic pot until it threatens to burn your eyelids, including almost hilariously ominous musical underscoring. This sequence includes an impulsive visit to a gay club, which as presented here, comes across as an embodiment of how utterly Brandon’s lost his bearings. Again, true for him perhaps, but it also seems we’re living in a “moment in time” when plenty of people (especially if they’re rich and urban) are happily and functionally bisexual (weirdly, my mind drifted at this point to Woody Allen’s Vicki Cristina Barcelona, which in retrospect started to seem somewhat radical in its relative serenity). A more broadly relevant, or at least constructively thought-provoking movie on the subject, perhaps, might be called Glee, if that title wasn’t taken.
Despite the praise for Fassbender’s performance, which is certainly committed, it seemed to me to rely on a lot of meaningful staring and loaded silences, of the kind that few men – even rich, good-looking ones – could pull off without seeming creepy, or else stunted. A sequence in a bar, where his less sophisticated boss strikes out with his babbling, while Brandon scores without hardly uttering a word, has all the subtlety of a deodorant commercial. Even so, I started by calling the film absorbing, and so it is – it’s often dazzlingly assembled, and McQueen has an immense facility with cinema: sometimes sweeping us up in intricate montage; at other times investing entirely in his actors, leaving the camera to run for five minutes or more. However skeptical you might be about its inherent value, it often feels like you’re watching an important film.
Writing at the time, I called McQueen’s first film Hunger – set in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison in the early 80’s – “a remarkable debut.” I noted it was wrenching at times, but said “it also resembles an immense multi-faceted art installation, with numerous points of entry and exit…the film sometimes recalls one of Kubrick’s filmic labyrinths (The Shining or even 2001) but without ever bastardizing the potency of the central human experience. McQueen also brings to this a tough-minded awareness of how the extremes of human suffering and ugliness shimmer with iconographic possibility.” Much of this might broadly apply to the new film too. But as well as everything else, Hunger was a serious work of historical reconstruction, for example putting up a closing series of captions (as would a more conventional film) reminding us of the grim facts. Perhaps the restrictions of that history, and of the prison walls, were vital to McQueen’s success there. Shame is painted on a much broader canvas, but as a result seems stifled, grabbing at ideas and possibilities, affecting a hard shell, but soft and indulged beneath.
The truth is, a much less heralded picture like Jason Reitman’s Young Adult has more to say about this moment in time. As I wrote the other week, that’s hardly an unflawed film, but it has instants of grounded observation surpassing anything in McQueen’s movie, and it evokes how the traditional markers of full maturity are increasingly unattainable now, with arrested development becoming a national condition (actually, this strikes me as a more sophisticated perspective on the mixed blessing of technology than anything in Shame). I’m not saying Shame isn’t worth seeing. But if you’re the kind of person to whom it’s remotely relevant, you’ll be too consumed by other things to see it anyway.