Shame (2011)

Michael Fassbender is a high-powered business man™, who, during the day, is charming, witty and the nearest thing you can get to a metrosexual alphamale. Ever willing to buy the next round, he has numerous friends and smiles in that way some people called handsome, but the realistic know is actually a smug git.

By night, he holds onto an unquenchable desire that leads him to traverse some of the darker areas of New York City and his very soul. Fassbender is a sex addict. Despite his exterior displaying a calculable amount of warmth, his interior is cold and rocky and hard like a cold hard rock. When his wayward sister (Carey Mulligan) bursts back into his life, Fassbender finds himself having to confront his past whilst trying to hide his overall shame… And there’s your film title. Now applaud and leave the theatre.

We’re not the first to point this out, but Shame is basically the film adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis novel never written. There are times, when you struggle to believe Director/Writer, Steve McQueen, wasn’t trying to put together a pastiche of Ellis’s work. The minimalist dialogue reflects Ellis’s misanthropic characters, whilst his style equally reflects the cold harshness of Mary Harron’s American Psycho with a splash of Roger Avary’s Rules of Attraction. And if all of this is deliberate, then brilliant. However, that’s probably just wishful thinking.

Basing a film around the context of sex addiction is difficult. There’s the danger of it all becoming an exercise in titillation rather than a study in the human condition. Shame treats Fassbender’s addiction, for the most part, very clinically. He shuffles from conquest to conquest without any resemblance of gratification crossing his face. At that, it excels.

The issue is Shame is like drinking a wine that you can’t quite decide if it has been corked. You willingly glug it down, nodding and agreeing with everyone else that it really is a fine vintage. Then that vinegary taste begins to creep into your mouth. Everybody else is still nodding and braying, so you don’t want to say anything in case you’re hung from the nearest lamppost. Finally, you can no longer deny the taste of cat’s arse swilling around your teeth and you just want to spit it out into the faces of the chinless wonders that are still nodding.

Shame wallows in its own smartness to the detriment of its viewers. Watched by Fassbender, Mulligan deconstructs New York, New York from a joyous, celebration of life into a cool, breathy remorse reflecting both their desires to fit in and move on with their lives. And we got that. We got that after the first minute.  We got that when Mulligan chokes on a line and Fassbender hides his tears. After five minutes of ‘Start… Spreading…………………………. The neeeeewwws. I’m………..Leaving….. to….daaaaay’, it took everything in our power not to launch the damn DVD into the sea.

Equally when Fassbender becomes intimate with a long-time office crush, it all ends with rather predictable results, but again it’s dragged out to the point of snapping. It’s as if socio-realist McQueen didn’t quite trust his audience to get the message straight away. ‘Just a bit longer. Bit longer. Bit loooonger. There we go. Next scene!’.

This is all made even more unbearable when the relationship between Mulligan and Fassbender is rarely explored. Lots of pauses, muttering and then RAISED VOICES, do not constitute exposition. Yes, intelligent movies don’t need to spell things out, but intelligent movies also help you feel something for their protagonists. This is especially important when Shame ends the way it does. As a result, there’s no emotional payoff.

This finale of sorts is preceded by a Fassbender frequenting a gay bar and then a high-class call girl. Whilst Fassbender is despondent in both scenarios, treating each as simply a way to get his leg over, the gay bar stands out as a real sore point. The reasons why Fassbender frequents the bar is left to the viewer to decide (is it habit? Latent bisexuality?), but we really have to question why McQueen chose to film the way he did. Contrasted with the soft focus, eroticism of the call girl scene, we don’t believe we’ve seen such a stereotypical, perverted view of homosexuality since the days of The Tool Box in Police Academy.

Shame is a film with a more or less interesting premise, which, despite all of the set-up, fails to make a long lasting impression other than ‘Jesus, when will it end?’. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have to go wash the taste of cat arse out of our mouths.

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