Reviewed Dec 03, 2011
Stuart Barr’s review:
On the surface Brandon (Fassbinder) has an enviable life: he has a good job doing something interesting (quite what is never clear, but the office is niiiiice); he has a small but chic Manhattan apartment; he is attractive and charming. But scratch this surface and the enamel chips away to reveal a gaping void of a man. Beneath his charm, smart suits and chiselled good looks, Brandon is driven by near insatiable sexual desire. Despite being able to charm the pants (quite literally) off women, he pays prostitutes, self abuses in the office toilet, and watches live sex on his laptop at home. It is an addiction and a compulsion. His life appears to any observer spartan and ordered, but this is a man trying to keep any significant relationship as far away as possible.
Brandon’s life is complicated by the arrival of his more obviously damaged sister Sissy (Mulligan) in a blaze of fake fur, peroxide and rouge. Sissy works as a nightclub singer, has clearly emerged unwillingly from a relationship, and sports worrying scars on her wrists. If Brandon is unable to commit, Sissy has the opposite compulsion, proclaiming love to men who see her as a cheap one night stand, throwing herself into doomed relationships. Sissy’s arrival unbalances Brandon’s life which begins to spin dangerously out of control.
SHAME is not a plot heavy film, the synopsis above is almost all there is to it. It is a character study and an exercise in exploring erotic mania. Make no mistake, this is not a film for the prudish. From the opening frames Fassbinder’s performance is sweatily physical and in your face. The Irish/German actor frequently displays attributes not normally shown in such swinging detail in mainstream cinema. Although the nudity is front and centre in SHAME, sexual activity is initially kept offscreen, but as the film progresses is gradually brought in front of the camera. In most mainstream films featuring explicit sexual activity, the sex acts as a break in the plot. You can take almost any sexually explicit mainstream film and cut out the sex scenes without losing any plot or narrative coherence. This is not the case with SHAME, here the sex scenes reveal aspects of Brendan’s character and his deteriorating state of mind. Removing the sex from SHAME would be like taking the songs out of WEST SIDE STORY.
Director McQueen puts the film together with skill, each frame visually arresting, each camera move considered and impactful. There are several scenes of extremely long takes, including one of Mulligan delivering a heartrending interpretation of the song New York, New York, turning it into a soul cry of loneliness and despair. McQueen also favours big close ups, the camera is as in love with Fassbinder’s angular face here as von Sternberg’s was with Dietrich’s. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (who worked on McQueen’s previous film HUNGER) turns in outstanding work here. Although much of SHAME is shot in interiors for obvious reasons the film still makes interesting an innovative use of New York locations, in fact it is one of the most evocative NY films of recent years, painting a bleak and largely nocturnal picture of a vast, metropolis where a character like Brandon can pass his time without making any serious emotional connection to any other human being.
There is also some very interesting editing strategies used in the film. Traditional continuous editing is mixed with non-linear editing in certain sequences. There are also psychological edits, for example Brandon appears to be looking at someone, but the cutaway is revealed to be the his’ imagination by a later edit. Very much shot from Brandon’s point of view, there is a suggestion that what we are shown may not always be reliable. This is never explicit, and it is up to the viewer to decide.
The sparse script by McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan gives the actors room to create and inhabit these characters without becoming tied to exposition. In many ways SHAME is a film that is difficult to spoil, so little is given away by the script about the characters backgrounds. It is clear that there is some deep rooted trauma or secret in Brandon and Sissy’s past, but the exact nature of this is never clear. The audience is left to ponder the reasons for the characters compulsions, to try and divine explanations from the actor’s expressions as very little is given away by their words.
Some viewers have criticised the film as been cold, on a subjective level I cannot agree. As Brandon and Sissy’s personal lives approach crisis, the film escalates and shows Brandon embark on a harrowing sexual bender that takes the film into some very dark places indeed. This culminates in perhaps the tensest and most draining final ten minutes of any film I have seen this year. I swear it is edge of the seat stuff.
Like the equally good WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, SHAME is a film that opts out of providing the audience with any easy answers. SHAME is a series of questions left open, it is up to the audience to join the dots, and it is likely that the different pictures that emerge will reveal uncomfortable truths.