From career depressives Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender, the sexually explicit and critically polarizing chronicle of personal desecration Shame is now available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox. Shame is director McQueen’s second film, following his painful and riveting 2008 debut Hunger, but although Shame superficially achieves a haunting poetic atmosphere and a high standard of technical accomplishment, the hollowness of its themes undermines its physical beauty, reducing it to an exercise in preachy, callow one-dimensionality, rather than the penetrating character study it promises to be.
Fassbender exudes tangibly high-strung melancholy as Brandon, a successful New York executive whose private life has become increasingly dominated by emotional isolation and sexual compulsion. Brandon’s coldly monotonous regimen of porn, live sex chats, call girls, and manipulative, emotionless dating is disrupted when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), shows up at his apartment for an extended layover, after being implicitly booted out of her apartment by an unstable boyfriend.
Sissy has clearly arrived in search of emotional intimacy and reassurance, but Brandon’s perceptions of normal human relationships have become so eclipsed by his need for sexual conquest that he can respond only with discomfort and avoidance. As the locked-down emotional turmoil evoked by the sudden shifts in Brandon’s environment continue to build, his inability to achieve any real supportive connection with his sister, or anyone else, sets off a string of passive aggressive confrontations and private, self-abusive sex binges, culminating in a Shakespearean crescendo of glibly reproachful emotional carnage.
Shame is a beautifully shot and meticulously structured film, but although its technical qualities are sound, it lacks a resonant context for its main characters’ actions that might make them seem meaningful or revelatory beyond their cheap ability to illicit shock and sympathy. More problematically, the film’s observations about human relationships and motivations are often embarrassingly half-baked and trite. Presenting raw sexuality in a way that is intentionally off-putting rather than titillating is hardly a unique approach in a popular medium traditionally dominated by schizophrenic standards of public decency, and the film’s reflexive equation of open sexuality with self-destruction and depersonalization is equally regressive and stereotypical. Aside from its knee-jerk conservatism, the themes Shame explores simply aren’t groundbreaking or complex enough to justify the film’s self-importantly confrontational approach, and the shallowness of McQueen’s treatment makes it feel more like a tawdry exploitation film than a sensitive character study.
Fassbender and Mulligan’s performances are admittedly both very strong, particularly Fassbender’s, whose palpable anguish is deeply moving despite the narrative and thematic vacuum in which it exists. It’s disappointing that the film’s childish, condemnatory obsession with reinforcing tired clichés about male sexuality prevents it from capitalizing on its expressive strengths. The disc’s special features are perfunctory, and the lack of commentary or in-depth behind-the-scenes material was honestly a relief, given the film’s disappointing vapidity. For a movie so superficially interested in the differences between genuine human feeling and empty stimulation, Shame is ironically a very stimulation-driven film, relying on the viscerality of its performances and the jarring nature of its content to produce an emotional reaction that stands in for artistic meaning, rather than struggling to really achieve it – much as its protagonist’s reflexive compulsions preclude him from ever truly experiencing sexuality as a genuine source of fulfillment and personal connection.