Tuesday, 17 January 2012
Steve McQueen's Shame
Too much discussion has revolved around the raw images of loveless sex in Steve McQueen’s remarkable film, Shame. It is true that this is not a film for the prude. Yet, Shame is no arthouse exercise in soft porn, a vulgar excuse for adolescent prurience or a sexual addiction “issue” film. It is a serious film with a moral core - film making of the highest order and executed with an uncompromisingly adult attitude.
The images that really matter in Shame, that penetrate the imagination, are those lyrical ones that mark this film out as an ambitious tone poem about the shame that shapes the human condition. In theological terms, the shame of Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise becomes in McQueen’s film, the shame of brother and sister who cannot connect with themselves or others.
The film opens with an image of devastating beauty. The handsome, thirty something, Brandon (Michael Fassbender), lies sprawled naked from the waist up on a bed. The deathly paleness of his flesh contrasts with the rich aquamarine of the sheets. Framing the image at a disorientating angle, McQueen signals that one of the interests of his film will be the nature of perspective and how shifting views of people undermine our superficial judgements. We may want Brandon to play to the caricature of the “sex maniac,” but he doesn’t. We may want to dismiss him as a sleazy pervert or admire him as an internet age Lothario, but neither of these crude perspectives do justice to the complex character on the screen.
McQueen’s opening cinematic image employs all the artistic attention of a Renaissance painting and clearly references Christ in the tomb images. But like the greatest Renaissance art, this highly accomplished image contains depths of meaning that elicit from the viewer responses beyond mere technical admiration. Brandon is entombed by his addiction. He is, in Norman Mailer’s famous phrase, “a prisoner of sex”. Brandon’s misery and self-loathing are communicated in his uncomprehending, dead-eye stare. There is darkness in his eyes. The bed where this man exercises his priapic lust is also the place where he finds himself most alone and alienated. What should be a place of sleep becomes a metaphor for a tormenting, existential insomnia that deprives Brandon of life’s most essential element: love.
In a pivotal scene, Brandon goes to see his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), sing in a snazzy club with a breathtaking panorama of the city. McQueen uses his signature film device of holding the camera on a scene and letting the action play out in real time, with the minimum of editing or tricksy camera work. Using a static close-up of her head, McQueen films Sissy singing New York, New York. But this is not the big band, razzmatazz anthem to the Big Apple that we are familiar with. Sissy’s rendition is mournful, brittle, extracting from the lyrics and musical arrangement an emotional dissonance that mirrors what is going on in her and Brandon’s respective lives. If I could make it there, I’d make it anywhere...The scene tests the endurance of the viewer. McQueen does not flinch. Can we bear to watch such naked suffering or will we turn away? As his sister sings, Brandon tears up and, for the first time, the pain within the man bleeds to the surface.
The third main character in Shame is the city. McQueen’s New York is cast in dark hues. Nightclubs are bathed in a palate of sweaty reds. The modernist sheen of offices and apartments are drained of any human warmth. Subway platforms are purgatorial antechambers. Trains ferry morose souls across the Styx of the urban sprawl to unknown destinations. It is a godless place. Having been betrayed by the promises of instant happiness and gratification, people are seen trying to rescue something of recognisable value from the rubble of their lives.
Against the backdrop of the city, Brandon goes jogging. In one continuous, uninterrupted scene McQueen’s camera tracks Brandon as he pounds the streets. Here is the loneliness of the long distance runner - Brandon running from all his internal hurt and trying to sweat his onanistic passions into submission. The image hums with a poetic density, whose meaning evades easy description and complacent thinking. A man jogging at night in a city suddenly acquires a universal resonance and significance. We recognise something of our own fragility in this action. The jogging scene is exquisite and heartbreaking like so much in this great film.
The ferocious, emotionally naked acting of Fassbender and Mulligan has been widely praised. I hope they continue to win awards for their coruscating performances. But, for me, Shame is all about the visual image and a reminder of how cinema can approach the mystery of who we are with startling, profound perspectives.