Can I tempt you with another arthouse movie about miserable people with hopelessly dysfunctional private lives? Shame is the second film directed by Steve McQueen (the Turner Prize winning artist, not the motorbike-bestriding film star) and it’s as uncompromisingly bleak as his debut Hunger, which took as its happy subject the dirty protests in the Maze prison by IRA members and the hunger strike and eventual death of Bobby Sands. Hunger surrounded a remarkable 15 minute head to head sequence between Sands and his priest with a set of slow, virtually wordless tableaux of the prisoners, their cells and their guards that typically featured prominent detailing of shit-smeared walls and urine-beswilled corridors. It was all actually quite beautiful, albeit in a remorselessly excremental way. Shame is a couple of steps closer to the mainstream, and even boasts a script co-written by successful dramatist Abi Morgan that gives some reasonably sustained chunks of dialogue to its actors but in some ways it’s even more depressing than the earlier film, in which you could at least divine some motive for the misery the characters put themselves through.
Michael Fassbender, who played Sands in Hunger and looked like he hadn’t eaten for months, is lead character Brandon, who holds down an ill-defined but well-paying job in an office in New York, and seems to divide his free time between having meaningless sexual encounters and consuming absurd amounts of pornography via internet, videos and magazines. After a while it becomes clear that he spends much of his time at work indulging in the same activities, though none of it appears to bring him much pleasure or fulfillment. His frustrations are exacerbated by the arrival at his flat of his flaky and troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), whose problems don’t interest him and whose presence disrupts his cycle of no-strings sex and incessant masturbation. Conflicts follow, as does an attempt to forge a more conventional relationship with a co-worker, but the unflinchingly austere style of the film doesn’t lead one to expect a happy ending.
Shame is actually remarkably watchable given its decidedly non-feelgood theme and characters, although McQueen does sometimes seem to favour his carefully worked out compositions too much over giving the audience some reason to care about the damaged people he’s putting on screen. There’s a consistent wintry, if not downright sterile, cast to the cinematography that nicely complements Brandon’s lack of empathy with humanity in general, and the streets of New York can rarely have been depicted as so impersonal and unwelcoming. There’s plenty of sexually explicit scenes in the film, but all of them show the act as functional and joyless – this is definitely not one for the dirty raincoat brigade. You’ve got to wonder what negative theme McQueen will take on next – pride, maybe? Myopia?