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Sex And Sterility: Steve McQueen’s Shame

Seeing Steve McQueen’s Shame and Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience within a week of each other is interesting. The two films have obvious points of similarity: both take place in a New York represented as a city of commerce and performance, where moneyed sterility and urban grime intermingle; and both feature stylish, ultimately blank protagonists whose lives revolve around sex in entirely different ways.

And of course, they come from different places. The Girlfriend Experience is another Soderbergh film concerned with people doing things; about what it means to have a vocation you take seriously, about all the little processes and actions that go into someone practicing the job or activity that defines them. Shame is an addiction drama (and an old-fashioned one at that), where mood, tone and theme take precedence. It’s a curiously uneven film, that paradoxically is at its most affecting when it stays on the surface.The film begins with a close-up shot of protagonist Brandon (Michael Fassbender) lying in bed. It’s presented at a 90-degree angle, with his body lying sideways to fill most of the frame. This notion of Brandon as a man trapped within the confines of the screen is reiterated again and again. As he paces like a caged animal around his pristine minimalist apartment, great care is taken to position his body against the edges of the frame.

For a film that aspires to a kind of low-key naturalism, Shame is a very deliberately thought-out bit of work. McQueen owes a lot to Kubrick in terms of obsessive attention to detail, especially with regard to sets and costumes. In particular, for all the nudity in the film (and there is a lot), the characters’ clothes play a clear role in delineating how they see themselves and what facade they present to the world.

Brandon is always impeccably dressed, armoured up in overcoat and ever-present grey scarf for the subway commute to work. (The scarf is important; look closely at the final scene.) There’s something in the way that Brandon’s boss and sister are both pointedly shown adjusting some part of Brandon’s pristine outfit, in a way we never see his call girls or casual hookups do.

There’s also a certain amount of information about power relations to tease out. Brandon’s office wear is standard creative-casual; suit with an open-necked shirt. His boss Dave (an excellently oily James Badge Dale) takes the so-important-I-don’t-need-to-dress-smartly route, spending most of the office scenes in a truly ugly hooded sweater.

Dave in particular is a very funny character, alternating between glib everyone’s-friend modern manager in the office and coked-up lothario on his nights out with Brandon. The scenes set among the nightlife of up-scale New York professionals are an excellently-observed study of embarrassment and social competition.

It’s kind of curious how so much of the film can be so deft and clever, and yet the scenes set around the mutually destructive pairing of Brandon and his sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan) so often lapse into overly schematic melodrama. Mulligan does a decent enough job with an underwritten part; her Cissy is if anything more of a cipher than Brandon, one dependent on the cliche of the flighty, hysterical woman who exists in the narrative merely to provide angst for the hero.

Nevertheless, Fassbender and Mulligan are good enough actors that their conversations, shot with a claustrophobic intensity, result in some powerful scenes. It’s when McQueen layers more techniques over the spare visual style that the film becomes too mannered for its own good.  The heavy, cloying strings ladled over the opening scene and the lengthy “bottoming-out” sequence (threesome and Fassbender sex face ahoy) did more to pull me out of the film than any of the “explicitness” promised/threatened by critics.

Shame is definitely a film worth watching. Fassbender is a truly magnetic performer, and McQueen has a masterful control of cinematography that focuses the viewer’s eye on the important details in every shot. For all the chatter surrounding the treatment of sex addiction, the film is ultimately at its best when its focus is at arm’s length. That doesn’t count as a failing; I feel one of McQueen’s strengths as a director is being able to interest you in a character or situation that is presented in such a detached manner. And taking such an intellectual tack on such an emotional subject is a way to explore addiction without either moralising or throwing a titillating gloss over the scene.

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