"Shame" – A Tear on Michael Fassbender's Face

in 68th Venice Film Festival

by Frédéric Jaeger

In the first scene Michael Fassbender lies motionless on the bed, a silk sheet covers only half of his body and cold light is shining on his naked torso. Suddenly, his eyes blink. Brandon is alive. Director Steve McQueen stages the visible and drills into it, into the world of Brandon, New York City as a port, America as a land of supposed freedom. He drills through it, without ever having to leave the surface. Everything is there, spread out, without any explanations. Brandon lives and trembles into himself until the next outbreak, in the subway, at work, in the alley. His obsession is sex without feelings; for a fee, with strangers, with himself, through a web cam. Shame is a film about a morbid fetish and also a film of appearances, of shiny surfaces, of window banks, of perfect arrangements, the act, the masturbation, the prostitute, the sex issue, the penis (up to the latter all in plurals). But McQueen is an artist of concentration and evocation.

Shame is as explicit as it is implicit. It reveals, it shows. It is in the present at all times: almost every scene is a snapshot of an emotion, or its absence, a feeling, a mood. In Shame understanding is always only a consequence of perceiving Brandon’s daily life; his routines, his work, and his escape, the escape into an inner exile, the flight to the bathroom for a quick masturbation at the office, the flight from the sister who wants to share her existential crisis with him. And in the same manner as Brandon eludes the psychological grasp, the film is, more than anything else, molded by the impression of seeing excerpts, fragments. They are not in the least bit mysterious, but radically precise. We look at Brandon’s back and know. We detect a smile and believe. We hear breaths and understand, a shadow, and we remember. Which leads us back to Michael Fassbender: his physique, his tour de force, a desperate look, and a tear at the right moment are the wood out of which Shame is made. In between those elements, and in them, can be found a whole world of pain.

The right moment is created and orchestrated by the editing. The lonely tear on Fassbender’s face is an echo — a reverse shot — to a long, simple, stunning close-up of Carey Mulligan, who plays the part of the sister, a gifted singer. At a gig in a posh club she sings probably the most blues-like and saddest rendition of “New York, New York” ever. Like Fassbender, Mulligan is also a blessing for Shame; it is her fragile, impulsive, access seeking Sissy who enables the film to find a balance between fullness and emptiness. What is meant emotionally is also true for the images: Steve McQueen uses the contrasts of the American metropolis. He repeatedly embarks in the human-packed subway, in bars, and the world of business, only to find the most expressive images in sterile (hotel) rooms and on the harbor.

McQueen, the British artist who is not only in competition at this year’s Venice film festival but has already been to the Biennale with a video work in 2009, presents Shame, only his second feature film after his stunning debut Hunger (2008). Even though his new work is stylistically less strict, it is again bursting in many places through images composed to the millimeter, and shoots again into the heart of human questions, of the place of our body and freedom in our society. The film stays with you for a long time after the end. The existential shame carries over to the spectators, not as a result, but as an open-ended process: “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.”