Moving on down that Top Films of 2011 list. This one’s been on my radar since hearing about it after seeing Steve McQueen’s excellent Hunger in 2008. The second high-profile NC-17 recently (along with Blue Valentine), Shame follows Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a sex addict whose life becomes more unhinged once his unstable sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves in.
I liked Hunger so much for a number of reasons, least among them was McQueen’s willingness to rely on long, static, dialogue-heavy takes. The man knows the importance of strong framing, good lighting, and good acting, and doesn’t feel the need to let camera tricks, flashy movement, or unnecessary editing get in the way of a story. Hunger was stark and brutal, dark and tiring. It called for attention to detail by its audience, but also rewarded the careful viewer with nicely written and composed moments.
Shame is similar in many ways. McQueen’s camera is frequently static or moving in one direction very slowly (see a long take conversation at a restaurant where over several minutes the camera inches forward from a wide three-shot to a tight two-shot). He uses non-diegetic music and ambient, diegetic sound often. His cuts are simply from scene-to-scene without much fanfare, he relies on actors facial expressions heavily, he isn’t afraid to be blunt (as evidenced by the many graphic sex scenes), and he crosscuts a small window of past and present time to great effect. The technique here is to stay with Brandon and watch his downfall in close-up (emotional close-up as well as the frame-size). The crosscutting time structure goes a long way to introduce him and his situation, but is reused towards the end of the film to anticipate his “demise” of sorts. McQueen doesn’t crosscut to put us ahead of his character, or to imply some sort of collision, but instead to make omnipresent the sense of foreboding that surrounds the picture, as though an aura of predestined stasis hovers everywhere, everytime.
There are a whole lot of things that really add up in Shame. The performances are phenomenal. The camera is confident and many of McQueen’s decisions – for example, playing Brandon as alternately menacing, flirtatious, and dangerous instead of one-note, or long flat tracking shots that simultaneously show momentum (running) and confinement (two-dimensionality) – flesh out the film to something more than just a man and his problems. Much of the writing, including a beautifully written and executed montage towards the end where Brandon, in a small amount of time, throws out all of his pornography, gets in a fight outside of a bar, and receives oral sex at a gay bar, is softly large and operatic, the build just swelling underneath the surface, where a lesser film would have emphasized with flashy angles, a camera lingering on the violence, or a Gaspar Noe-like infatuation with fellatio.
This isn’t all to say that Shame is perfect. In fact there’s a major flaw in the writing. It’s obvious that McQueen intentionally leaves Sissy and Brandon’s backstory blank. They seem to share some painful past, but it’s indicated only in sparse moments, themselves beautiful (she singing at a club while he cries, him overhearing her on an anguished phone call), but collectively too ill-sketched to add up to real emotion. The effect is that Sissy feels spastic and used, but there’s no real anchor for our feelings for her. Instead of understanding her situation or emphasizing with her condition, we do little but just watch as she ruins her life. SPOILER HERE: Then, when she finally attempts suicide at the end, it seems both too obvious and inevitable, and forced like the person who screams for attention so much that you ignore them. The funny thing is, this is exactly the type of character that McQueen has written for Mulligan’s Sissy. But just like in real life, it’s annoying. Maybe his point is put us in this position and then make us feel as guilty as Brandon when he ignores her calls and finally finds her in a pool of blood, but if so, Brandon still has an advantage over us: he presumably knows their backstory, adding much more weight to her slit wrists.
This moment aside, the film functions as a much less hyperactive American Psycho. Fassbender’s Brandon is a less overtly psychotic and generally non-violent Patrick Bateman. They both exist in a nondescript corporate world, dominated by men. Sex is either a game or an addiction, but in either case it’s loveless. Of course McQueen’s technique pulls Shame far from the wonderful exploitation of Mary Harron’s film, playing less as satire and more as grim downward spiral, where the controlled aesthetic and monochrome mise-en-scene force us to look away from setting and more towards character.
Much has also been made of a long take shot (it’s actually crosscut with a reaction) of Sissy singing a rendition of New York, New York. This is a great example of McQueen replacing backstory with present emotion and, as I’ve already mentioned, relying on the actors to tell the moment. It’s not one of the failures though – this is a scene that works perfectly. The emotion in Sissy’s voice. A falling glance. Brandon looking away and slowly crying. The fact that we last the whole song (adding to its importance, allowing us to realize that it’s more than just a part of the soundtrack, allowing the actors to subtly play with the emotions at play) is not insignificant. There’s such a thing as bravura (pejoratively speaking) shots and this is not one of them.