By Simon Abrams
Press Play Contributor
As a filmmaker who initially screened experimental short films influenced by Andy Warhol and Jean-Luc Godard, Steve McQueen (Hunger) surely knows the importance of the image as symbol. In theory, Shame could have been set in any other city. But when he changed his film’s location from London to New York City, McQueen changed the texture and the character of his bathetic and fundamentally shallow update to Death in Venice. Visconti, this guy ain’t.
This can be seen in a telling scene in which Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a jaded sex addict wracked with guilt over his addiction and his lust for his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), races past the 2nd Gulf War memorial on 29th Street and 5th Avenue. It’s a brief shot, but it also has to be. Brandon is racing to save Sissy, to stop her from becoming just one casualty amongst many in McQueen’s dour N.Y.C., a New Babylon that’s had all the life sucked from its veins. Brandon doesn’t want her to become one more faceless name amongst many.
At the same time, Shame could be remade in any other city because any faceless city could be the setting for McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan’s facile and altogether trite observations about being stuck in a bad spiral of shame. That glancing shot of the memorial and all the other specific references to the city, from Madison Square Garden to the way Brandon conspicuously shuttles from 28th Street to Fulton on his way to work, make Shame, as it exists now, very much a film whose meaning comes from McQueen’s surface-deep view of the city. Then again, why should he value the character of the city he’s shooting in when he shows us that he doesn’t want to cut any deeper into his human protagonists’ personalities either?
Shame’s Manhattan is not what it used to be, as is evinced by the obnoxiously conspicuous graffito of “Fuck” plastered above Brandon’s head as he has sex with a stranger in public. McQueen indulges Brandon’s capricious and self-pitying vision of both the city and his sister when Sissy sings “New York, New York” in an embarrassingly slow and mournfully "meaningful" way. Her performance is shot in real-time and in close-up, making it impossible for McQueen’s audience not to be impressed by how hard both Mulligan and he by extension are straining to make the scene in question mean something, or just feel more significant than it does.
McQueen tries so hard to make Brandon’s problems seem more than just dramatic but rather momentous to the point that Shame doesn’t look operatic but rather self-satisfied and over-cautious. Every emotion is writ in impersonally large letters, such as the way that Sissy, the bright-eyed and unfettered bohemian who still thinks of New York as a playground for her amusement, stands right at the edge of the R train’s platform while Brandon, the morose and self-loathing sex addict, stands at least a meter away from the edge. By trying to keep Brandon as physically far back as possible from his sister and any oncoming cars, McQueen rubs in our face just how literally he can represent the carnal abyss that Brandon’s trying to avoid.
Shame does not organically develop any of its wan narrative into substantive drama because McQueen and Morgan never lay down any real stakes. With the exception of Fassbender’s strong performance, the film is an entirely superficial monument to self-indulgent hubris, and I don’t mean Brandon’s sex addiction. Bookend images of Brandon refusing to follow his hedonistic impulses and pursue a married woman he’s eye-fucked on the subway reveal just how un-nuanced, how consistently shallow Shame is. McQueen never really tries to dig into Brandon’s psyche beyond loaded symbols, like the wedding ring on Brandon’s subway daydream girl. Married as it is to Harry Escott’s bombastic score, this visual motif perfectly sets the tone for McQueen’s funereal drama. Fassbender gets buried alive here in a talented young artist’s pretentious, pseudo-spiritual vanity project.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.