Now, this is a story all about how
My life got flipped-turned upside down
And I'd like to take a minute
Just sit right there
I'll tell you how I became addicted to sex comin from anywhere
Shame is a disgusting film that puts deplorable people on display for the audience to see.
In Steve McQueen’s second feature film, he follows Michael Fassbender’s Brandon as he descends into a world of addiction and debauchery. This film is a character study of what happens when this man’s life is turned upside down when his sister comes to live with him, and how he deals with the ensuing chaos.
Fassbender is magnificent in this film. He pulls off a feat that would seem almost impossible, making us sympathize and empathize with someone who is morally and objectively disgusting. But Fassbender succeeds with flying colors. All of the cast is great, Kerry Mulligan was very external, forcing her acting upon you, while Fassbender made you come to him, to deconstruct him. Fassbender specifically has something inside of him, a spark that transforms his performance from above average to awe inspiring. Fassbender has lost himself. There is no Fassbender when you look to the screen. There is only Brandon, a rich 30 something living in a sterile New York apartment. Fassbender has disappeared, substituting everything that made Fassbender himself for something entirely foreign. It’s magical to see someone so transformed into a character, to see the lose themselves entirely, it’s not something you see everyday, and it’s only something that a fraction of actors can achieve, and Fassbender has attained that level of pure performance. Fassbender is able to communicate so much through his facial expressions alone. With zero dialogue he can take a scene and add character, a humanity that would be lacking otherwise. He has very little dialogue, but through his performance alone we learn an incredible amount about his character. There is one scene in the beginning of the film that has zero dialogue, and has only subtle performances to communicate what is happening to the audience. It’s a rollercoaster ride of flirtatious, and sometimes incredibly creepy and invasive, eye contact that creates tension, emotion, and empathy for both characters through their performances alone. There are shots that go on for upwards of 5 minutes, not cutting away, just focusing on the actors performances, not distracting the audience away from the masterful acting that is presented. When Fassbender looks at people, or whenever there is a time without dialogue, he’s no staring blankly. He has emotion. But not just one, many and they roll over him in waves, transforming a pause into something much more meaningful and impactful. He makes you never want to look away, in fear that you’ll miss something, some subtle aspect of his performance that will communicate new information to the audience. Not enough can be said about the transformative genius that Fassbender has put to film in this piece of cinema.
While some filmmakers revel in dialogue, they depend on it to tell their story, McQueen uses images to tell his story. Funny that today, so many filmmakers rely on audio to deliver their story in a visual medium. Not McQueen, he uses dialogue as sparingly as possible, and with purpose, he uses it to make a point, to reveal something that would be impossible to reveal otherwise. When characters are at their tipping point he uses dialogue to document that explosion of emotion. The pacing of this film is methodic, deliberately slow, putting us in the shoes of Brandon’s self destruction and repetition. This film has created people. Not characters. These are incredibly flawed, yet realistic human beings, to a point where it becomes increasingly harder to empathize with the main character. Showing the dichotomy of Brandon, how he behaves in his private life, and how he behaves in the public. How he shapes and reshapes himself based on what society expects from him. But even then there’s glimpses of Brandon’s core that cannot be suppressed. The film introduces subject matter that is wholly disgusting and repulsive, but gives us characters that we eventually empathize with. These characters are beyond moral redemption, but somehow we still want to see them succeed. To see them become better people, to escape their cycles of addiction, and it’s beautiful. To have the ability to make an audience empathize with characters that are unlikeable, and irredeemable, is a testament to how well written this film is.
The cinematography of this film is gorgeous. From the previously discussed long shots, to the way the lighting depicts character, this film is impeccably shot. Shot on 35mm 2 perf film, this film makes New York look unlike any New York most films are willing to show. It’s not dramatised, or romanticized, it’s real. It’s gross, it’s gimey. It grounds the audience, and prepares them for a film that’s not going to dramatize or romanticize its subject matter either. It sets a tone, and sticks with it. Most long shots in films are incredibly self indulgent. They’re there to get notice from the academy, or to just make a cool looking image. But that’s not what cinema is about. Film is about making emotionally impactful images, and stitching them together in a way to create a story. With emotion. And sometimes quick cuts are there to service the story, and the emotions, and other times long shots are needed to ratchet up the tension and wholly immerse the audience into the world of the film. And a good filmmaker knows when to use camera work to service the story, not their own ego. None of these shots are in the film to boost McQueen’s ego, they’re there to bolster the story, to service the characters, to give perspective to these characters, and to offer a window into these people’s lives while still being purposeful and emotionally effective. This is filmmaking at its most purposeful. Every shot. Every frame, every camera move, every tick and nuance of a character’s performance, Every sound means something. Conveys something. Conveys emotion. It’s one of the most intentionally constructed films I’ve seen.Through the film, the way Brandon moves through the frame is a powerful representation of what is going on in his head. This is exemplified masterfully by a 2 minute long one shot that follows Brandon going for a run through the streets of New York, he is framed far to the left, running to the right. No matter how fast he runs he never reaches the center of the frame, somewhat blatantly showing his internal struggle. The camera keeps pace, almost becoming obvious and self indulgent, but that’s what they want. The camera can be taken to represent Brandon’s addiction, following him everywhere, always keeping pace with him, no matter where he goes. Even through the intelligent use of mirror placement, we learn more and more about Brandon, either consciously or not, we’re learning more and more about this character, even without dialogue. Sean Bobbitt, the cinematographer of the film, has a very unique view of coverage. In an age of multi camera setups, filmmakers are taught to find the performance in the edit. Bobbitt is quoted as saying, “Coverage is like mass production. If you shoot enough, you can cobble it together into whatever you want. So it’s really about not making decisions. It’s a decision not to make a decision.” the images you end up with are dull. You’re simply accumulating stuff, and not really thinking them through, and thinking, “What is the most important thing at this time, and do we show it or do we hide it?” To shoot everything and figure that someone else will sort it out is tantamount to non-directing.” This is an intelligent cinematographer who knows that his job isn’t to create pretty pictures, it’s to craft images that are emotionally impactful, that service the story and the characters, images that have layers and metaphors wrapped within, to arrange those images in ways that not only make sense, but that resonate emotionally with the audience and make them think.
Shame is a film that’s subject matter will make you never want to watch it again, but is constructed in such a way that will make you want to come back for more. It’s a film that will leave you thinking, but will not leave you confused. My mother told me a story about when she saw Schindler’s List in the theater and when the end credits came, everyone just sat in their seats. Astonished. Emotionally drained. Stunned. That’s how I felt at the end of this film. Normally I’m quick to turn the film off and go online to see what others think, but I just sat there. Astonished. Thinking about what I just experienced. It’s been days since I first watched this film, and it has not left my mind since. Always haunting, itching at the back of my mind, it has never left. It’s kept me thinking about what certain shots meant, what the significance of certain colors were, and the complexity of these characters have all stuck with me long after the end credits. A criminally underlooked film, it’s a shame this movie hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.