The experience of watching Shame is one of trying unsuccessfully to understand a person whose private life would normally remain hidden inside the anonymity of the city. Here director Steve McQueen affords us a look at Brandon – “a powerful Michael Fassbender, midway between seductive and creepy” (Jordi Costa, El País) – whose life outside of office hours is a cocktail of flirtation, casual sexual encounters, prostitutes, porn and masturbation. Our gaze at his life runs parallel with that of his sister Sissy (Carey Muligan), who shows up in his apartment unexpected, begging for shelter and love and rudely invading Brandon’s tightly controlled existence. Her desperate dependence is something Brandon detests and resists. And although we get a hint of the origin of his compulsive behavior by their interactions, Brandon’s inner life will remain a mystery to us. McQueen and fellow screenwriter Abi Morgan do not seem to be interested in examining sexual addiction, if such a condition even exists. Rather, they have something to say about the desolate, isolated landscape that is the modern city. With his coldly stylish apartment, fit physique, prestigious yet empty job, and feeble attempts at a real connection with a co-worker, Brandon is Patrick Bateman without the hyperbole: the dark essence of what modern life can propagate. He is “the extreme manifestation of all of us: individuals peering into the void that awaits as the endgame of the logic of consumption, of the never-ending satisfaction of desire” (Jordi Costa, El País).
Steve McQueen tells the story of Brandon and Sissy in beautifully shot sequences that have a dragging quality. “Throughout the film, the construction of situations [remains] accurate, intellectually fascinating (and the term ‘installation’ quickly comes to mind)” (Thomas Sotinel, Le Monde). Sometimes the camera stays close to a character for such a long time that it becomes uncomfortable (as in the scene where Sissy sings her drawn-out rendition of “New York, New York”), at other times it stays so wide that we feel like a casual observer looking in from the outside (as during Brandon’s awkward date). Two meticulously realized scenes stand out in particular, because they are echoed later on in the film, to great effect. The first is a scene of Brandon going for a midnight jog to escape his apartment. “The tracking shot that follows Michael Fassbender in the streets of Manhattan at night reaches kinetic perfection” (Thomas Sotinel, Le Monde). The second is an eerie flirt on the subway. “An everyday scene, but Steve McQueen films it as the promise of a mysterious, perverse ritual. With geometrically clear and strictly composed images, which bring to mind Antonioni in their ability to evoke both a chill and the heat of arousal” (Rainer Gansera, Süddeutsche Zeitung). The editing work by Joe Walker at times presents the scenes out of order, first showing us the effects that foreshadow the actions. The sex scenes as shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt are explicit but utterly unarousing, with abstract animalistic poses reminiscent of Antoine D’Agata’s work, while the heavy violins of Harry Escott‘s score drown out the screams. McQueen demonstrates great command and confidence in combining all these cinematic elements to show us a fragment of Brandon’s world in an urgent yet unobtrusive way, which clearly carries his signature as a visual artist.