“The subway is a porno / The pavements, they are a mess / I know you’ve supported me for a long time / Somehow I’m not impressed” — ‘NYC’ – Interpol
“These little town blues are melting away / I’ll make a brand new start of it, in old New York” — ‘New York, New York’ – Liza Minelli
There is a scene in Steve McQueen’s searing drama in which Sissy (Carey Mulligan), the suicidal sister of sex-addicted Brandon (Michael Fassbender), brings a bar to a standstill and her brother to tears with a sombre rendition of the Liza Minelli showtune ‘New York, New York’. It turns out that McQueen has always read this ostensibly jaunty number as a blues; a tragic, ironic precursor to crushed dreams and being swallowed whole by an impersonal city that doesn’t care. This decidedly melancholy approach bleeds into every frame of Shame, an elegant, humane and explicit film about addiction, repression and the failure to connect. It could also be that very British McQueen has made one of the great New York – and specifically Manhattan – films; the famed borough a character in itself, with its glacial apartments, criss-crossing streets and after-hours bacchanalia framed with elegant precision, bearing down on its trapped, lost protagonist.
In recent times, for reasons of planning permission, logistics and finance, an increasing number of filmmakers have taken to filming in Toronto in place of New York. Shame – every inch a New York movie – could be set nowhere else. Although research for the film began in London, the filmmakers found that sex addiction was barely recognised in the UK, and in relocating to New York found a network of groups far more willing to divulge information and a confessional culture more in tune with ideas of self-help and therapy.
When we meet Brandon for the first time, he is far away from that stage of self-recognition. His story begins with the pursuit of anonymous sex on a subway, his shark eyes flickering with automated lust at a pretty girl sat across from him. The encounter has a fly-on-the-wall danger, and is shot with the rough and ready rawness of a of Bruce Davidson photograph.
Before long, we’re introduced to the corporate blandness of his work existence which recalls the sour milieu mined in Bret Easton Ellis’ ‘American Psycho’, with its yuppie jockeying and casual objectification of women. In another NY nod, Brandon’s self-destructive nocturnal impulses and addictive, repetitive behaviour also echo the protagonist of litearary enfant terrible Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel ‘Bright Lights, Big City’. His numbing routine of porn-surfing, onanism and emotionless sexual encounters is established briskly by McQueen, so that within the opening five minutes, a shot of a closing cubicle door becomes visual shorthand for Brandon masturbating. In the scenes in which Brandon goes out on the town, the modernity of the era is subtly constrasted with an evocative feel for New York’s more outwardly sleazy past through the carefully selected soundtrack. Blondie’s ‘Rapture‘ and Tom Tom Club’s ‘Genius of Love‘ hark back to the Lower East Side grime of the pre-gentrification early-80s. Later, in Brandon’s apartment, Chic’s propulsive ‘I Want Your Love‘ goes even further back to the late 70s and the exuberance and openness of the Midtown-focused pre-AIDS disco era.
Brandon and Sissy’s relationship is also framed and informed by geography; neither are native New Yorkers. Sissy is peripatetic, having wandered in from L.A., while Brandon reveals on a date that he was born in Ireland and relocated to New Jersey before coming to New York. These are the “bridge and tunnel” kids, a derisive term native New Yorkers reserve for those who come in from the suburbs. It’s a small detail, but underlines their outsider nature. “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place”, says Sissy, the scars on her wrists testament to her turbulent past. McQueen and co-screenwriter Morgan are not given to over-exposition, refraining from providing anything so straightforward as “a cause” for Brandon’s – or indeed Sissy’s – behaviour. We don’t know the details of their upbringing; their emotional dislocation is simply amplified by their outsider nature.
The scenes between Mulligan and Fassbender carry an unsettling charge, enhanced considerably by their close proximity and McQueen’s intimately tight framing. While never quite reaching the levels of incestuousness exhibited by Al Pacino’s Tony Montana toward his younger sister in Brian de Palma’s Scarface, one cannot help but make the unsavoury connection because sex is always on Brandon’s mind. The scene in which Brandon’s boss seduces Sissy in Brandon’s apartment, while Brandon listens in is a masterpiece of jittery, unresolved tension, and brilliantly acted by Fassbender.
In the astonishing sequence which follows, a furious Brandon goes for a late-night run to burn off energy. The camera tracks Brandon across at least five avenues from East to West, and is striking in its revelation of the relationship between space and character. The neon ‘Landmark’ New York of Times Square and Manhattan Mall is teasingly relegated to the backdrop, reminiscent of the poetically realised London of Mike Leigh’s Naked. The camera leaves Brandon as he continues into the night, westward toward the Hudson which separates him from the Jersey of his past. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt brings a steely, metallic gleam to everything he shoots, recalling David Cronenberg’s psycho-sexual odyssey Crash, and enhancing the film’s Ballardian psychogeography; Brandon’s mental state is inextricably linked to his environs.
Although McQueen’s style here is more conventional than in his film debut Hunger, he nevertheless remains a striking formalist, with repeated use of long takes (including a memorable, funny date scene shot with a near-static camera in real time; think arthouse Sex and the City) and exceptional framing, including the painterly opening shot of a contemplative Brandon partially wrapped in an electric blue blanket. Structurally, Shame plays as a series of city vignettes, as days blend into night and rote encounters unfold in the melancholy half-light that mirrors Brandon’s emotional dislocation. Late in the film, one bravura, disturbing sequence that signals Brandon’s sexual breaking point (and, with just a hint of moral prurience, nods toward William Friedkin’s gay S&M-themed Cruising) plays cunningly with chronology and would make a fine short on its own.
Indeed, in mainstream (studio) cinema, perhaps only Richard Brooks’ disturbing Looking For Mr Goodbar (still unavailable on DVD), in which a schoolteacher embarks on a ‘liberating’, doomed quest for anonymous sex, and the aforementioned Cruising, have matched McQueen’s film for adequately conveying the conflation of sex and danger inherent and seemingly interwoven in the city’s underbelly. New York is there for Brandon to use, and he takes advantage, compulsively; down low under bridges, up high in glassy apartments.
At heart, Shame is nothing less than a modern tragedy in which the commodification of sex is internalized, effecting a coruscating death of the soul. Whereas the LFF’s dismal opening film 360 made a facile nod to the “interconnectivity of the modern world” with startling revelations including: people use mobile phones, search engines and aeroplanes, Shame investigates, in explicitly honest fashion, how access inspires excess and spiritual remoteness within a vast metropolis. This in itself is not a revolutionary idea, yet the key is in the formulation of Brandon’s character. Neither swivel-eyed social malcontent nor buccaneering predator like his married boss (who peddles the yuppie lechery of ages), Brandon’s evident social skills and outward charisma underline the locked-in nature of his problem, and Fassbender’s extraordinary, chameleonic performance communicates sadness and, yes, shame with heartbreaking accuracy.
Although Shame is a bleak film, it’s not without hope as we can discern from a teasingly ambiguous coda that harks back to the opening scene. What is certain is that McQueen has coaxed a stunning performance from a third lead alongside Fassbender and Mulligan: New York itself, in all its angular, criss-crossing, sleazy, metallic glory. The city that never sleeps can be a lonely, lonely place.