There’s a creature. This creature is part human- part animal. The human goes to work at day, earns lucratively and lives a high-end lifestyle. At the break of dusk, this creature retreats to his den, morphing into an animal with a voracious sexual appetite and engages in a world of sexual activity. Hookers often visit, cybersex is routine and his store is filled with cartons of pornographic magazines. This creature is Brandon, Michael Fassbender’s character in Shame.
There’s no guarantee that the beast will remain hidden inside. Even at his workplace, it possesses him unexpectedly, forcing him to masturbate in the restroom. It all works out for Brandon, who keeps his sexual feelings discreet because he doesn’t believe he has complete control over this hypersexual animal inside him. Shame suggests that something has happened in the past for him to be threatened by this inner beast.
Everything is fine until his den is invaded by an intruder, the only person Brandon has a human connection with. Brandon throws out his porn filled laptop, the magazines and the sex toys. Hookers are kept out of action. The food supply to the sexual animal is cut off and you’ll see it is no easy task to keep it pacified.
Brandon’s internal world is centred on his male organ. It appears to have a life of its own. The dialogue from last year’s Biutiful, “You don’t feed a hungry lion” fits here. The beast wants are unending and Brandon needs his privacy. When his sister crashes at his place, there’s prey that he needs to protect, from the beast within. The beast can no longer lurk around comfortably in its den. And having to wrestle with this beast all day, Brandon is drained of all energy. It unleashes itself to the outside world. We’re mere spectators here; at a distance, simply watching Brandon as he is conquered by the beast within.
Shame is dark, depressing and realistic. Director Steve McQueen has an interesting way with the camera. The real brilliance of Shame is in the effectiveness of choosing to withhold key information about its characters. And by doing that Shame distances itself from its characters making it purely about the symptoms of sex addiction. It becomes generic, almost like a documentary. Giving all the answers could’ve ended up being about a depressed character escaping into sex; now it just about the life of a guy undergoing sex addiction. They're sticking to the symptoms, and keeping a distance from the diagnosis/ cause/ reason.
Brandon is no character for the ages but I’m unlikely to ever forget his miserable state. Mulligan’s quite a surprise here, playing against type. You might be left hanging for answers after your first viewing and might need to watch it again but you won’t, it’s just too unpleasant. There’s less to understand, more to experience.
Shame’s an original piece of work, largely owed to Fassbender’s captivating performance. Watch Hunger, Fish Tank, A Dangerous Method, Shame and you’ll see that he’s no ordinary actor. His character has no idea of what he’s going through, it feels normal to him. The condition is shown from a neutral perspective without making him feel out of control and suffering.
This is the second McQueen-Fassbender collaboration after 2008’s Hunger, a film that, no pun intended, made my stomach churn. Steve McQueen might have just two films to his credit but he has already found his inner voice as a filmmaker.