London Film Festival 2011: Shame (Steve McQueen)

Returning to work with Michael Fassbender, after the success of Hunger (2008) which launched both their careers in film, British artist Steve McQueen presents Shame, an exploration of sex addiction in the modern age.

Fassbender plays Brandon, a New York bachelor a la Patrick Bateman, brooding and mysterious a la Mr Rochester (see his latest performance in Jane Eyre) and with the steely glare of Magneto (see him in X-Men: First Class).

He has a good job, a nice apartment, an active social life. People like him. But he has a hidden secret: he’s a sex addict. The obsession rules his life. From when he wakes up to when he goes to bed. And McQueen definitely doesn’t beat around the bush showing us that. Five minutes in I was watching a naked Michael Fassbender, peeing. Actually peeing. Then jerking off in the shower. Then jerking off in the office toilets. Then having A LOT of explicit sex. And so it continued. It was actually quite sick-making.

The stark nature of his relationship with sex made it quite sad to watch; he was empty of feeling, unable to connect emotionally to another human being (hugs included). Sex was a machine-like act, aggressive and mindless with programmable turn ons and offs. The camera clung to his facial expressions; tight with tension yet raw and tired and broken.

His loveless world is exposed when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan– in her best performance to date-better than Never Let Me Go, even) comes to stay and interrupts his daily spermathon routine. Their tumultuous relationship sees Brandon growing more frustrated with his sister’s reckless, destructive and unstable emotional behaviour, to the point where they both become dangerously manic depressive. In explanation of this, it is hinted at, but never said out loud, that the siblings share an abusive childhood. We can only guess.

McQueen and screenwriter writer Abi Morgan (Brick Lane, The Iron Lady) seek to expose the accessibility of porn and how sex has become commodified with the internet, but also the anonymity of the modern age, how technology separates us, and those distant, organised relationships. Brandon goes on a date and admits ‘I don’t see the point in relationships’, he knows how to act and what to say and how he’s supposed to feel, but it all seems like wasted time before the main event.

I found the film brilliantly creepy and disturbing, but believable and empathetic. It wasn’t like watching erotica, it was like watching Brandon’s self destruction; tragic, but arresting, beautiful and memorable. A brave performance from Fassbender, who exposes himself in every way possible, highly deserving of the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at this year’s Venice Film Festival, and many other awards to come, I hope.

Shame will be released in the UK on 13th January 2012.

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