Last night the Irish Film Institute hosted a special preview screening of Shame, Steve McQueen’s latest film, which stars Michael Fassbender (as did McQueen’s debut film Hunger). The screening also featured a Q&A with the Director and the film’s co-writer Abi Morgan, via satellite link-up with the Curzon cinema in London, as well as some sixty-odd other cinema’s around the UK and Ireland.
In the film Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a slick, suave professional living and working in New York City. He lives in a modest, minimal apartment in Manhattan and works at a non-specified office job in the city; but he also harbors a full-on addiction to sex, which takes up a large chunk of his time each day. Not only is Brandon downloading porn onto his hard-drive at work, but he pays regular visits to the office bathroom during the working day, and flips open his laptop to view more porn as soon as he gets home. He also pays for prostitutes when not engaging in casual sex with random bar-room pick-ups.
Brandon’s “routine” is interrupted with the arrival of his needy, self-obsessed singer sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who lands in Manhattan to do some gigs and needs a place to stay. Though he is helpful at first (though not exactly courteous), needless to say he soon tires of Sissy’s attention-seeking behaviour and things start to spiral out of control for both siblings.
McQueen said in the Q&A afterwards that the central idea for the film was arrived at quite arbitrarily, as was the decision to shoot it in New York – apparently he couldn’t find any sex addicts in the UK who were willing to discuss their addiction. While the idea of “sex addiction” might seem like something dreamed up for a salacious TV programme; the film (though never naming the issue) treats the subject seriously and focuses on Brandon’s issues with intimacy, his inability to conduct relationships and his sense of isolation as a result.
Other questions are raised also about the ubiquity of porn, through ease of access via the internet and social media sites, and how easily we accept that these are just facets of how we all live now. However the film makes it clear that Brandon has a real problem, though it doesn’t make any judgements on his condition. Both Brandon and Sissy are unquestionably damaged people, but McQueen gives us no backstories to show how they’ve arrived where they are. He simply shows them to us in the here and now and lets us make of them what we will.
Both Fassbender and Mulligan are excellent as brother and sister, while McQueen’s direction is confident and inventive. He has a gift for framing images in a way that makes them appear fresh, or even disconcerting – the opening overhead scene of Fassbender in bed silently staring up at the camera is a case in point.
One thing which didn’t occur to me as I was watching the film, but has been picked up elsewhere, is the idea of Sissy as a sex addict. Certainly her behaviour is also compulsive, erratic and perhaps dangerous; but I’m not sure I agree with the suggestion, though it is interesting to think about in retrospect. Shame is a film which lingers in the mind, due in no small part to its icy cool tone and moody ambivalence. A must-see.
Shame opens at the Irish Film Institute on Friday, January 13th.
Watch the trailer: