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An Adult Film

Sam Poppleton

ShameSteve McQueen
13 January 2012


Shame is an adult film. That is, it’s a mature piece of cinema that deals with issues and emotions as part of a spectrum rather than providing clear cut answers. There is ‘no War Horse sunset’ as director Steve McQueen puts it. Instead, it is a painful insight into the cyclical nature of addiction.

Shame deals with sex addiction, and the dominant role it plays in the life of New Yorker Brandon (Michael Fassbender) as well as the effect it has on those around him, notably his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) and colleagues. A condition that could have been comic in a more childish film is treated with pity and truth. It is this controversial subject matter that gives the film its greatest power. Unlike other films about addiction such as Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream which deal with substance abuse, not just a topic, but a set of processes and urges that the majority of audience members will be unfamiliar with, the subject of sex and relationships is something to which everyone watching can empathise. As a viewer you are in dialogue with Brandon and question your own actions in relation to his.

The medium of the film is dictated by the narrative, just as it is in other recent releases; Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s 3D film which deals with the three dimensional dawn of cinema, and The Artist, a black and white silent movie which revolves around the shift to ‘talkies’ in the late 1920s. Similarly, Shame, a film about a sex addict, obviously contains sexually explicit material. But McQueen’s direction removes any sense of titillation from the picture and prevents sex addiction being scoffed at. The BBFC’s 18 certificate is justified but should not deter those interested in a serious, challenging film.

Shame, like sex, is about both control and intimacy. Brandon is a high-functioning addict who has tightly compartmentalised his life; he controls he relationships with women, often by paying for them, always avoiding any sense of intimacy, and is able to do so through the instant access granted by the internet and the never-sleeping New York City. Glenn Gould’s highly visceral but equally poised recordings of the Bach Goldberg Variations are not only the music that accompanies Brandon but also the music he chooses to listen to, as if Brandon’s power of control extends to the film itself. The arrival of Sissy changes all of this. She is the unpredictable, jazz singing, element. Her actions are not part of any regimen; she brings men back to Brandon’s apartment and puts funk on his record player. Her improvisation does not fit into Brandon’s controlled world.

This tension raises the problem of intimacy. Both characters’ boundaries are confused, Brandon incapable of connecting with people except physically, Sissy reaching out to everyone and anyone. Former visual artist McQueen’s direction involves the audience in this struggle. The art-house techniques he utilises are beautiful in their own right but the fact that McQueen has a voice and vision with which to martial these resources leads to a powerful viewing experience. His achingly long shots create a crucible within which personal connection is made to feel uncomfortable; the claustrophobia of Sissy singing New York, New York in a club, Brandon’s attempt to break from his cycle by going on a real date (forgoing control of his own freewill) and his various physical reactions to this inability to handle intimacy are all captured in single takes.

This generates a kind of painful but also familiar realism. Life doesn’t cut to the highlights of a date, it doesn’t play music in the silences in conversations, few human interactions are unambiguous. Despite its many abstract elements, not to mention its provocative subject matter, Shame is most deeply interested in the grey areas of ordinary lives.

Sam Poppleton studies music at The Queen’s College.