LFF: Shame

Three years ago I woke up at some ungodly hour on a Sunday morning for the sole purpose of attending the LFF press screening of Hunger, the debut film from Steve McQueen about the 1981 Irish hunger strike. Like most people I was blown away by the film in general and was particularly enamoured with a 17-minute shot that is still the longest shot in a mainstream film. The hype for Shame has also been unrelenting so understandably there was a queue for the press screening and an undeniable buzz in the room as well as in a few underpants. Thankfully, all the hype is richly deserved as Shame is a devastating depiction of compulsion and addiction lead by phenomenal performances and beautifully shot by McQueen.

Brandon (Fassbender) is a successful somethingorother (I can't remember if they actually said what he does) who leads an empty existence in a horribly sterile, emotionless home and regulation stylish clothes, but underneath all his wool coats and probably Egyptian cotton sheets lies an all-encompassing addiction to sex and everything that entails. He masturbates at work, obsessively indulges in internet porn and is not impartial to the odd hooker, but as the opening scenes dictate, he prefers the thrill of the chase followed by the inevitable success. Enhanced by a breathtaking score which muffles out the daily grind of New York City, he stares intently at a pretty girl on the subway like a hawk stalking its prey and is clearly not at all bothered by the presence of a wedding ring on her finger. He follows her through the station and when he loses her, returns to the platform with all the dejected body language of a footballer who just missed a crucial penalty. It's all very gripping but if you think this is just about one man's insatiable need to get his leg over, you're very wrong.

I'm as responsible as anyone for the attention Mr Fitbender has received for his looks but after watching "The Fassbender Cock Movie" I can honestly say that focusing on what may or not be an above average-sized penis that'll destroy the pause button on my remote control his nudity is hugely derivative and somewhat insulting to his performance. The arrival of his needy little sister Sissy (Mulligan - who also goes full frontal) throws up a whole new set of issues that both actors remarkably convey with apparently the slightest amount of effort. She's a singer and a free spirit who, like her brother, is very comfortable sleeping with strangers but longs for an emotional attachment as well, one that he won't (or can't) give her. How telling that the song playing when they first meet is 'I Want Your Love'. Their relationship is odd but intriguing, and the themes of a destructive childhood environment, abuse and even incest are hinted at but never explored.

The script allows the audience to make up their own mind and McQueen's decision to shoot several scenes from behind isn't exactly groundbreaking, but is effective nonetheless. Much like Brandon's late night spot of a couple fucking against a window, we're peering into his seedy world of casual sex only to find that what appears to be exciting on the outside is actually very empty and sad. Shame possibly wouldn't have been as devastating had it focused on a different addiction because we're used to that and you only have to walk down a street to see someone clearly suffering from their affliction no matter what it is. Sex addiction has never been taken seriously thanks to celebrities using it to justify their philandering and self-indulgent behaviour but Shame is such a punch in the gut it may finally legitimise the problem. I doubt that was McQueen's intention, but the mere sight of Fassbender somehow managing to convey devastation and ecstasy in a single facial expression during a particularly energetic threesome is a more effective demonstration of the power of addiction than anything I've ever seen on film.

Shame is beautiful and painful, sad and funny and a true indication of what cinema can do when one decides to tell a story that's brutal and true. It's magnificent, and has some fucking great posters: