Film in Focus: Shame


The return of Steve McQueen (no, not that one) is an exciting prospect for those who saw his debut feature Hunger – a brilliant study of Bobby Sands and the 1981 hunger strikes in Northern Ireland. Hunger is a brave, beautiful and powerful picture, film as poetry if ever there was one.

His second feature, Shame, released in cinemas now, doesn’t quite reach the lofty, peer-less heights that Hunger does, but it is another compelling and absorbing character study none-the-less.

The film follows Brandon (Michael Fassbender) as he negotiates the sterile apartments and offices of Manhattan trying to get his next fix. His drug of choice? Sex. Sex is Brandon’s escape from the sanitised minimalism of his everyday life. Everywhere is devoid of emotion, and sex is clearly his way out of this modern nightmare.

Shame has been described in most of the promotional literature as being a film about a sex addict. This is certainly a very contemporary dependency to make a film about. If the ‘60s and ‘70s had a love affair with cannabis and LSD (Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now), the ‘80s with cocaine and money (Scarface, Wall Street), the ‘90s with heroin (Trainspotting, The Basketball Diaries), then the twenty-first century’s love affair, thanks largely to the Internet, is surely with sex, or, more accurately, pornography. The abundance of pornography and prostitutes in Brandon’s life shows the contradictory nature of his addiction: he is de-sensitised to sex, but it’s the only thing that gets him off.

Brandon’s life continues in this vein until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes into his life seeking help and support. These are two people both screwed up in their own way, unable to find a way out; however, Brandon is unable to help. He is emotionally illiterate and can’t express more than contempt for his sister. Indeed, he states at one point, “actions count, not words”. Brandon’s is a life stunted, lifted only briefly by the ‘action’ of passionless sex.

McQueen urges us to see his characters, not just to look. Voyeurism (pornography’s primary mode of construction) has crippled Brandon; the dangers of the voyeur are represented everywhere through shots in windows, reflections in mirrors. This represents the proclivities of the characters but not McQueen’s philosophy of looking. He has an unflinching style when it comes to editing; he doesn’t cut, he keeps the camera on his characters for more time than the contemporary audience is used to. He did this to brilliant effect in the famous twenty-minute shot in Hunger, and he uses a similar shot construction in Shame when Sissy sings in a jazz club. This style asks us to stop being voyeurs and to really see the people on screen, to invest in them; we are all in this together.

McQueen has crafted an excellent study, not just of an addict but also of modern city life. The notion that the individual is never more alone than when they live in the city, surrounded by millions, is no cliché in Shame; here it feels very much like the truth.

This is a stunning start to 2012. Shame is an absorbing film, populated by characters that you really care about – a film that will have you thinking long after the credits roll. McQueen and co. deserve all the success and adulation that is surely coming their way.


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God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.