Shame (2011): Steve McQueen’s Tale of Sexual Addiction Starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan

“Shame,” Steve McQueen’s follow-up to his stunning debut, “Hunger,” reteams him with the brilliant actor Michael Fassbender.

Fassbender, who played the self-starved IRA member Bobby Sands in “Hunger,” renders here yet another dramatically intense, challenging performance.

Review of Hunger:

At this point, Fassbender is not only the busiest actor around (six movies over the past two years, including Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” “Jane Eyre,” Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method”), but also the most versatile (alongside Ryan Gosling).  Is there anything he cannot do? I bet he can also sing and dance, at least adequately, if not more.

World-premiering at the Telluride and Venice Film Fests (in competition) to enthusiastic critical response, “Shame” won the Venice Special Jury Award as well as the Best Actor kudo for Fassbender. The film plays at Toronto this week, and then at the New York Film Fest in early October.

The entrepreneurial Fox Searchlight has just picked U.S. distribution rights and will release the picture later in the fall, in time for Oscar considerations. Will the Oscars conservative voters be able to “stomach” this provoactive picture, which contains graphic portrayal of  sexuality as well as male and female frontal nudity?

Films dealing with sexual contents explicitly and graphically–and “Shame” does both–have always been a risky proposition for talented directors, and few have been successful: Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1973 “The Last Tango in Paris,” with Marlon Brando at his very best, but not with Bertolucci’s 2003 “The Dreamers,” (which also premiered at Venice Fest), which was a commercial flop, partly due to the fact that iy was slapped by the MPAA with the punitive rating of NC-17 (the kiss of death at the box-office).

This is even more problematic, when the film concerns sexual compulsion and addiction, with detailed intercourse scenes, as was the case of David Cronenberg’s “Crash,” in 2004, which for me is nothing short of a brilliant movie–a masterpiece. But “Crash,” like “The Dreamers,” divided critics and then failed at the box-office.

As a feature, “Shame” is just as uncompromising, painfully intimate, and challenging as “Hunger” was back in 2008, though the new film is slightly more accessible; there were many walkouts during the last reel of “Hunger,” due to it graphic portrayal of starvation, intensity in watching death on screen, the nasty debilitating effects of starvation.

Many directors have made movies titled “Shame”—Ingmar Bergman among them—but few have penetrated so deep into the nature of human sexuality and its abhorrent, deviant sides, showing boldly and unabashedly the use and especially abuse of the human body.

As a movie, “Shame” is clearly made for mature and intelligent adult viewers, and I do hope that, with strong critical support and with Fox Searchlight’s proven expertise, it will find its audience, at least in metropolitan centers. I have no doubts the picture will be more popular in Europe than America, and that it will gain a following, in not cult status, when it is released on DVD.

As written by McQueen and Abi Morgan, the text centers on one lonely, isolated, alienated but fascinating personality, as he interacts with the new social surroundings, defined (and even determined) by the new technologies and social media.  As a character, “God’s lonely man,” Brandon may be a younger brother to Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s 1976 masterwork “Taxi Driver,” featuring Robert De Niro, though in intent and psychological insights “Shame” goes way beyond “Taxi Driver.”

While the film’s is formally rigorous, “Shame” is more narratively–driven than “Hunger,” and more aware of the outside reality than that claustrophobic picture, which by necessity was set within the limiting confines of a prison.

In the long, silent beginning, we meet Brandon (Fassbender), a handsome urban dweller, living in Manhattan, ready to go to work in his office. But wait, he is not quite ready yet. First come masturbation scenes in the shower, then self-imposed breaks at work for more masturbatory experiences in the office’s restroom.

Brandon’s work routine (and routine work) is interrupted when he experiences computer problems. Not wasting time, Brandon and his libidinal boss, Dave (James Badge Dale), go out having fun, drinking, picking up women.

There’s both manifest and latent competition between the two men, and we immediately notice that women are far more attracted to Brandon, who’s suave, better looking, and cooler than Dave. Cruising and scoring come easily to him.

A series of nights on the town and one-night stands follow, indicating Brandon’s alienation—from himself and from others—and sexual compulsion, which doubtfully pleasurable. Clearly, he’s more comfy in socializing with “strangers” than with interacting in more “normal,” “ordinary,” and “civilized” encounters with men and women he knows. To paraphrase the lyrics of the hit song, Brandon is “comfortably numb.”

Things change upon the sudden arrival of Brandon’s younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan, in yet another surprisingly different turn), who’s exactly the opposite of her brother: extrovert, chatty. friendly, endlessly needy for attention. Brandon perceives her unwanted presence in his place as invasion into his private world.

It takes some time before we realize that Brandon and Sissy are bonded more intimately than they (or we) had realized, and that the burden of their tumultuous past is still very much in evidence in their contemporary conduct and attitude (No more could be disclosed here).

The crucial issues in the remainder of the narrative, which gets deeper and more resonant, are those of breaking point, moral and physical crisis, and the prospects for any catharsis or relief. The key question is when will Brandon be forced up to dig deeper inside himself than he has ever had and confront head-on the sources of his problems.


Brandon – Michael Fassbender
Sissy – Carey Mulligan
David – James Badge
Dale Marianne – Nicole Beharie


Fox Searchlight Release

A See-Saw Films production for Film4 and U.K. Film Council.

Produced by Iain Canning, Emile Sherman.

Executive producers, Tessa Ross, Robert Walak, Peter Hampden, Tim Haslam.

Co-producer, Bergen Swanson.

Directed by Steve McQueen.

Screenplay, Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan.