Adam Hollingworth casts a satirical eye over Steve McQueen's Shame...
Guys, have you ever woken up one morning, taken a long hard look in the mirror, and thought to yourself, “You know what? I’m really having far too much sex and this isn’t very good for me.” Well, Michael Fassbender does just that in a stark, hauntingly un-erotic scene in his latest collaboration with artist-cum-filmmaker Steve McQueen, Shame. He even has the temerity to have this dawning moment of sexual realisation in the midst of a hard-core threesome with two unfeasibly attractive prostitutes. Some people are so ungrateful.
It may well be the case that he’s had sex with more women during the course of the film up to this point than I’ve had in my twenty two years of British amorous bashfulness, and has done so with a Magneto the size of a small Oompa Loompa, and is growing decidedly tired of having to constantly think up increasingly unlikely ways of picking people up (I stare at hot women on the tube every day, and I assure you not a single one of them deviates from the standard behaviour of attempting to avoid your gaze at all costs). But the fact of the matter is that he really doesn’t seem to be suffering all that much from this alienating, perverse form of addiction.
Steve McQueen is one of that admirable band of filmmakers who views himself as an artist, and rightly so since he actually is, in fact, an artist. This however renders him more open than most to the desire to explore the great undiscovered country of arty cinema: the age-old question of whether a sex film can transcend the salaciousness of its subject matter to be a very serious and worthy piece of existential consideration. Pardon the phraseology for a moment here, but when it comes to making the arty sex film there are numerous exciting ways to do it. You can do it like Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shit (sorry, Shut) in which everyone wears a mask right out of a Halloween party in the Hundred Acre Wood, and Tom Cruise pretends not to be a homosexual whilst offering us a glimpse of what those top secret Scientology gatherings are really like. Or you can do it like Michael Winterbottom in Nine Songs, a veritable set list of supposedly casual encounters that would make even the likes of Joan Collins go a darker shade of crimson. Alternatively you can do it like Bertolucci in Last Tango in Paris, in which Marlon Brando certainly can’t believe it’s not butter. And for the gentleman of more fetishistic taste, or someone who just isn’t that into Utterly Butterly, you can do it like Nagisa Oshima in Ai No Corrida, and admit that it’s all so tediously boring that you might as well just chop it off!
Though all of these films certainly have their merits, they all encounter the same problem when it comes to addressing sex in an arty way on film: it always turns into a bit of an excuse to do some well-photographed rumpy pumpy scenes with two good-looking actors, and as such fails to properly distance ourselves from the on-screen erotica to objectively judge what the film has to say. This is certainly a problem with Shame: we’re too interested in admiring the technique of this fine specimen of a man to worry about how this is all gnawing at him physically and psychologically. This wouldn’t have been a problem if Brandon had been played by, say, Steve Buscemi. Fassbender’s a brilliant actor, and gives a courageous performance in the film, but I’m just trying to catch another envious glimpse of his German-Irish frankfurter.
The film’s problems are compounded when you think about the other dimension it presents itself as having: namely, that it’s as much about addiction as it is after sex. When you finish watching Trainspotting you don’t want to then take some drugs in case a baby starts playing Spider-Man on your roof, and after The Lost Weekend I was scared to have a pint lest the cast of Tales from the Riverbank besieged my home. After watching Shame, I fancied a shag, and that’s hardly the sign of a film putting you off the addiction it presents.
It’s not that I thought Shame was a bad film: indeed there is much to recommend it. The art direction and cinematography presents a cool yet cold world with an alien sheen: an objectified and superficially beautified view of reality that reflects the way Brandon objectifies the various elements of his life to feed his lusts. Fassbender is brilliant, and so too is Carey Mulligan, cast against type in an emotionally raw, unstable and fractured performance that’s probably the best thing she’s done (and she can knock off a mean, sultry rendition of “New York, New York”). However, after the extraordinary image making of Hunger I really did expect more from Steve McQueen’s direction. Aside from the above bit when Mulligan sings, and the bit when Fassbender decides to eschew sex for a brisk late-night jog, and a suitably nightmarish “descent into the maelstrom” sequence before the dramatic backlash of the central brother/sister relationship kicks in (he can’t engage emotionally with women, she’s very needy, he subsequently is absent in his sister’s hour of grave need), it’s all very uninspired, insipid, and safe. With such a deliberately vague and obscure narrative, in which little proactive drama or character history is supplied, one would expect mood, tone and detail to be found in subtly metaphorical imagery, but this is unfortunately lacking, and in tandem with the infuriating ambiguity of the drama makes for a rather superficial experience. It’s all too neat, too obvious, too well-trodden. Like Brandon’s sex life, the film just casually, if eventfully, crawls from one episode to the next with little meaning or impact.
Let’s get topical as a way of rounding things off. I’m not surprised Fassbender isn’t Oscar nominated for his performance in this: not because it’s not a great performance, because it very much is, but when even George Clooney is intimidated by your natural perks you know you’re seriously risking alienation from the mainstream. And although Carey Mulligan has also been unfairly slighted by the awards circuit, at least we get to see her naked in this. I really wanted the film to be better than it was, but unfortunately it isn’t better than it is, because it’s only as good as it is. That didn’t make much sense, did it? Maybe too much sex is bad for you…