Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Behari
Expressionism & Realism
I don’t really know where to start with this film since it is so beautifully layered. It’s hard to believe that it’s only Mr. McQueen’s second feature. The level of accomplishment and the confidence that exudes from each frame is astonishing. Perhaps it’s what Orson Welles attributed to the artistic cinematic success of his first two features: the brash ignorance of film technique married to the proficiency and success in another visual art medium (theatre for Welles, photography for McQueen). The resulting Shame is the type of film and the kind of film-making you wish was more popular or acceptable but, at the same time, understand why it is not. With it, Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender and, to a lesser degree, Carey Mulligan have crafted an exquisite piece of film art that blends realism and expressionist subjectivity (like Mr. Welles particularly did in his first film, Citizen Kane) to powerful, resonant effect.
On the surface, the subject of this film is Brandon’s (Michael Fassbender) sex addiction, but this seems more of a categorizing and way of promoting the film. Sure, Brandon has a sex compulsion to the point of it controlling the way he lives his life. The sex is not wanton or erotic. Like all addictions it leads Brandon to loneliness and isolation. His apartment is stark, his nakedness spartan and fitting in to the minimalist aesthetic; his job is nondescript and his habits are those requiring solitude (Internet pornography and masturbation).
The loneliness is drawn out by the expressionist qualities of the film. The opening scenes in Brandon’s apartment are especially expressionist with frigid and sterile blues and greys. The opening shots of Brandon lying on his bed make his face skeletal and his form dismembered in the way the sheets cover his body. Brandon’s clothing is plain and muted (pale glen plaid coat, pale grey scarf, pale blue shirts). His state of mind is as washed away and as dead as the environment he lives in. It’s not until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves in that colour disrupts his world. Upon coming home to discover Sissy in his apartment, Brandon picks up her purple-pink boa with the end of a bat rather than with his hands. Red is the colour that becomes most explicitly linked to Sissy (her Annie Hall-esque hat and her lipstick as she croons “Ney York, New York” ).
The suggestion of the colour is not as a contrast to Brandon’s sterility in terms of vibrancy, but instead it suggests danger and sex. Sissy is, of course, a danger to herself as well as to Brandon’s mode of living. Toward the end of the film she attempts suicide and stains Brandon’s environment and his self with blood. Just prior to this Brandon’s compulsion for sexual anonymity has taken him into a gay sex club which is awash with expressionist red. Brandon’s sexual desire and frustration is at its highest, most dangerous point. It could be that red, already associated with Sissy, is being used again to connect Brandon’s compulsion to his desire for and sexual frustration toward his sister. Mr. McQueen’s targeted use of expressionism in lighting and colour draw attention to Brandon’s character and his motivations.
The realism of the film is brought to the fore in Mr. McQueen’s favoured use of a single-camera set-up (static, pans, and tracking shots) and long takes. In Hunger (2008), this technique was used most notably in the scene between Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and the priest (Liam Cunningham) — one take, one camera, no camera moves. Shame doesn’t use it to such an extreme, but when it is used (such as Brandon’s morning routine or his stalking through his own apartment while Sissy is with his boss in the bedroom or the attempted sexual encounter between Brandon and Marianne) it leaves the audience as transfixed as the camera is on what is happening. I can easily see many viewers being uncomfortable with something so stationary (which is partly the point). There’s no illusion of action, there’s only the person or people in the frame and their sense of confinement and, of course, the power of Mr. Fassbender’s fierce performance. Holding to a single camera and a single take allows Mr. McQueen to take full advantage of his lead actor’s ability to weep out, to sweat out, to excrete the essence of his character through his body, his mouth, and his eyes. How Mr. Fassbender was ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (AMPAS) for an oscar nomination is ridiculous.
Shame is a virtuoso example of cinema. It is crafted with confidence and complexity (I haven’t even gotten into the film’s main themes) and uses the full repertoire of cinematic syntax: camera work, montage, light & colour, performance, and sound & music (which I also haven’t dealt with). As long as Steve McQueen continues directing films (and especially if he continues his collaboration with Michael Fassbender) then the type of film that should be more popular and should be seen by adult/grown-up/intellectually mature audiences will continue to be made. It’s the type of film and film-making that demands our support.