Steve McQueen’s Hunger stands as one of the most powerful and mature debuts of the last decade, with McQueen transcending his previous art by some way (although to me his short film Deadpan, in which he plagiarized Buster Keaton’s “standing underneath the window of a collapsing building” gag, was more of an indication of the pretensions of contemporary art than a work of art unto itself. Maybe that was the point). He crafted a film about the IRA hunger strikes so meticulously measured in its pace (one scene is an unbroken 17 minute shot) that audiences at Cannes responded to it with both walkouts and a standing ovation. Few films are so divisive – in recent years, perhaps only Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life has caused such a rift amongst cinephiles.
Shame is equally daring, with its intense focus on Brandon (Michael Fassbender, who also starred in Hunger), a sex addict incapable of emotionally engaging with the world around him, and his equally disturbed sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Brandon is a successful advertising executive living in New York, a career which to many epitomizes the kind of detached, soulless psyche satirized in its most extreme form by Brett Easton Ellis (as Bill Hicks says, if you work in marketing and advertising you seriously should kill yourself).
Except Brandon is no psychopath – rather, he is a man who seems intensely aware of his own disengagement from his emotions and the shame which comes from his irresistible drive towards sexuality devoid of emotional resonance, yet utterly incapable of altering his behaviour. He masturbates in the office toilets, fucks a virtual stranger under an overpass, watches endless porn (his work computer has to be repaired due to all the viruses gathered) and sleeps with a string of prostitutes. But when faced with a situation where he is expected to do more than fuck, the anxiety and confusion is written in every line on his face. His relationship with Sissy is the most revealing of all – it is as if she acts as a mirror to his neurosis, and consequently he rejects her attempts to strengthen their familial bond and seems at his most emotional when expressing his anger and frustration towards her.
Shame is uncomfortable viewing, as it should be. Brandon’s obsession with sex, like all addictions, ultimately brings him no pleasure, just a sordid form of relief from irrepressible drives he doesn’t know how to contend with. Like the best character studies it’s less about bringing Brandon and Sissy through to a comfortable resolution and more about articulating the place in which they currently exist, however harrowing the experience may sometimes be.