Filmhounds Magazine

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Reclaiming the Rotten: Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011)

6 min read
Filmhounds Magazine

Each month, Paul Klein take a look at a director's back catalogue and pick their lowest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes and ask ourselves – why? Why is it their least loved among critics? Regardless, we attempt to see the good in it.

This Month: Steve McQueen's SHAME (2011)

Rating: 79%

, not he of riding motorbikes away from Nazis and escaping buildings on fire, but he of Turner prize winning artist fame, is a director to be reckoned with. After creating visual art that saw him rightfully lauded as a visionary new voice, he turned his more than capable hand to writing and directing films. First with his biographical drama Hunger following hunger striker Bobby Sands, which also saw rave reviews for 's performance. His later films include Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, which saw him nominated for Best Director and really solidified him coming onto the world stage. He followed it with Widows, a big screen adaptation of the Lynda La Plante ITV miniseries of the same name with an all star cast. The film might have done poor business at the box office (it was the second women centric heist movie that year after Ocean's 8 and was much less silly), but it holds a strong place for its audience. Most recently he scored more rave reviews for his anthology of TV films comprising of Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Red White and Blue, Alex Wheatle and Education. The anthology currently holds his highest rating on Rotten Tomatoes and showed a different side of the '70s and '80s for Black Britons.

But his lowest rated – though 79% is still something to be very pleased with – is his 2011 drama . The film follows frequent McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan, a single man living in New York who suffers from a sexual addiction, his life is thrown into turmoil when his Lounge singer sister Sissy () comes to stay and it becomes clear that she has mental health issues that Brandon cannot cope with.

There is something to be said about McQueen's affinity for physicality, be it the total destruction of the body in Hunger or even the abuse visited upon it in 12 Years a Slave. With Shame McQueen asks all of his performers to bare themselves completely – both physically and emotionally. It's easy to jest about Fassbender's full frontal nudity, or even Mulligan's, and that nearly every scene is followed by one of sexual content but the film strips away their clothes and barriers to show people's flaws and insecurities. 

There is a growing sense in cinema about becoming less and less adult, rarely are films an 18 in the UK or NC17 in the US, usually to appease a mass market and that lucrative international distribution in countries that are less liberal minded about sex. What Shame aims to do is to be an adult drama about an adult subject and to not laugh at it. Unlike a film like Thanks for Sharing that looked at sexual addiction through the prism of a romcom, this is a film that shows the corrosive nature of addiction to sex and the ignoring of human connection.

The film owes a debt to Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris and makes it clear with naming the protagonist Brandon, referencing actor Marlon Brando. Like the earlier film, Shame is not afraid to portray sex in a frank and realistic matter as opposed to the often eroticised manner it usually is, unlike the work of Paul Verhoeven for example.

While the film has the usual artistry of which McQueen is known, long takes and scenes of intensity set to music, the film does have a surprisingly un-political bent to it. While the rest of his work is concerned with politics and the changing nature of them – even Widows referenced the gulf between the haves and have nots who live side-by-side – the film is looking at emotion and how your mental state can fracture that. In the role of Sissy, Carey Mulligan is a juxtaposition to Brandon. She is emotionally volatile, sensitive to situations and the opinions of her brother, but is at least able to express her emotions no matter how extreme. Brandon, however, is void of emotion, when faced with a co-worker he might become romantically involved with (an underused by hypnotic Nicole Beharie) he is unable to sexually perform, his connection has severed his ability to achieve an erection.

The film is also interested in the contradictions of Brandon; we meet him on a subway exchanging lustful looks at a woman who clearly wears an engagement ring, he also later offers a proposition to a woman with a boyfriend resulting in him being beaten up – yet, when his sister Sissy sleeps with his married boss David (James Badge Dale) he chastises her. He doesn't hold David to account for hitting on women in clubs, or willingly sleeping with his sister, but accuses his sister of being a burden and pathetic. It's unclear if Brandon is sexist, certainly he doesn't feel the need to connect women to anything other than sex, and so most of the women we meet in the film barely speak.

Unlike, say, Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac which looked at the life of a sex addicted woman, which in turn punished her at every turn and even ends with her almost being raped, Shame looks at the devastation of the soul. Sissy pointedly says to Brandon that they are not bad people but from a bad place. Sissy's eventual suicide attempt might sit uneasy with people, what she desires from Brandon is a closeness he cannot provide and her suicide attempt forces him to reconsider how he acts. 

Perhaps the biggest issue people have with the film is its lack of resolution, how you interpret the final scene is down to your own outlook of the film. A typical film would have Brandon attend an addiction meeting or start a relationship with his colleague and find a medium between sex and emotion, but McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan aren't interested in that and instead appear to want to leave the ending up for interpretation. 

Despite that, Shame is a frank and devastating portrayal of addiction to the flesh of others that doesn't offer easy answers. It might be that super hunky Michael Fassbender (and the promise of seeing his penis) along with awards darling Carey Mulligan, make the film appear to be more welcoming than it is. The film is a harder watch than the premise of “Fassy has lots of sex” would sound on paper, and the emotion, or lack thereof, sits uneasy with people who in most films are told sex is the natural end point for emotion, not just a physical act.

Though called an erotic drama, there's very little erotic about the film, it's shooting of sexual scene is very matter of fact, and not sexualised. McQueen treats Brandon's addiction as he does the abuse of slaves, he puts it on screen in unbroken shots, despite the sex not being violent in nature, the way it's shot has the feel of aggression. It might be that that people take issue with, that they aren't allowed the benefit of sexual excitement, only the mechanics of sex.

Even so, McQueen proves that he is a fearless filmmaker that continues to make work that is confrontational even when it appears to be something entirely different. A sexual film for a sexual age where sexual freedom is frowned upon.

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