Steve McQueen’s new film Shame (co-written with Abi Morgan who wrote The Hour and The Iron Lady) is about life in an aimless, godless, unfettered universe and the various ugly/arousing sexual events that populate a few weeks in the life of a rich Irish atheist New Yorker called Brandon (Michael Fassbender who was Bobby Sands in Hunger and Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre) after his sister Sissie (Carey Mulligan), a love-bruised nightclub songstress and frequent suicide, comes to sleep on his couch for a while.
It is not made clear why he doesn’t want her there. They may have committed incest while teenagers when drugged or drunk; or not. She may have attempted suicide while pregnant, and miscarried and become infertile; or not. She is certainly a mess, ‘flinging herself’, as we used to say, at man after man and sobbing her love and masochism down the phone after one-night stands and crawling into his bed for comfort he refuses to give. We all know girls like this; or we used to.
What is disturbing is not so much his cruelty to her, for we can readily understand this, but his attitude to women in general. He is implacably determined not to marry any of them, or breed with any of them, or to have a relationship longer than his longest, which was four months in toto. He watches porn, and tosses off a lot, and his sister çheerfully, shamingly, catches him at it. He fails to maintain erections with ‘normal’ girls but makes it easily with hookers, whom he humps and buggers and threesomely grapples, in visible moral agony while at his grimy exertions.
It would be wrong to say this is ‘graphically’ shown, though you see almost everything that is done or attempted. It is more correct to say that McQueen, a former war artist who portrayed shattered corpses in Iraq, unveils a landscape of metropolitan desolation like that which Michelangelo Antonioni attempted, but much, much more successfully.
His visual style is both austere and ravishing. Shots in which nothing apparently happens for minutes on end are held and we look deeply into them as we would a Dutch Renaissance painting. In one of them he woos, if that’s the word I want, while ordering dinner and wine in a sumptuous restaurant and a pretentious waiter constantly interrupts the flow of his wooing, a beautiful mixed-race divorcee Marianne (Nicole Beharie) and tells her frankly and confrontingly that he can’t see why anybody would want to marry, dismaying and arousing her, and their ‘relationship’, such as it is, rises into hope and slides down into pointlessness — and, at best, a promised one-night stand —all in this one beautiful unmoving wide shot, in which you see and understand everything. And you share her shock too when next day on their first rushed exciting encounter in his flat he fails to get it up, and tells her to go, and hires a prostitute and violently has her from behind, hurting her.
It is not insignificant I think that Brandon is an Irishman, albeit one migrated in his teens to America. He may be the first Irishman in world literature to feel himself free of all family obligation, and all notion of love received and love given, temptation yielded to and sin forgiven and the power of prayer. He is a kind of psychopath, but not quite; he is moved to a single tear when his sister sings, very slowly, with a kind of lost and baffled tenderness, ‘New York, New York’ as Piaf might have sung of Paris. What he is feeling, or remembering, we do not know.
He is, I guess, what might be called the Present Human Tendency, closer in his values to a Muslim polygamist, selecting and discarding women as he chooses, from among those he despises enough to deem worth wooing. A young man who told me he found as a rule the first six months of a relationship the most interesting, and he always ended it after that, is much like him, and a dreadful unforeseen consequence of the sexual revolution that I, for one, was very keen on once, and now am troubled by.
And yet he doesn’t lie to his women. His friend from the office David does (James Badge Dale), and he despises him for it. And one night after he seduces Sissie, who responds to him in the usual sobbing, hyperbolic way, Brandon goes out into red-light streets in the hope of getting himself killed.
This is a remarkable film, as telling in its way as Snowtown or An Education or Hardcore or Taxi Driver or Samson and Delilah. It tells you things you do not want to know. They are undeniable, and yet you strive to deny them even as they pass before your eyes.
It argues, I fear, that whole Sexual Revolution of the 60s and and the 70s was catastrophic for women. It left them with no safe harbour, no real advocates and no defensive weaponry. In the old world order of shotgun marriages, hardworking harried husbands in boring lifetime jobs, six o’clock closing, cheap mortgages, four children, two miscarriages and family Christmas holidays, and the palliative legend of True Love, forty out of a hundred of them had a fair chance of getting through life undrugged, uncrazed and unsuicidal. This is no longer so. Women concentrate now on their diets, and female friends they can trust and bitch to, and try to make sense of the one-night stands and the casual regretted abortions and the fading hope of a man who will stay and the single child they may or may not be able to fit in between their other, increasingly frantic priorities as the clock ticks and their life adds up to nothing. And it’s a pity.
Michael Fassbender is shaping up as the Brando/Olivier/Depardieu of our day and gives a performance, with huge dick swinging and haunted eyes that see all and comprehend all but do not care, a performance vast as Hamlet you cannot imagine if you have not seen it. Carrie Mulligan likewise amazes us with a raw impelling victimhood and sullen traumatised poignancy and great singing that even Shirley MacLaine in her youth could not have summoned, and only Mia Wasikowska might lately on a good day equal, as she did in In Treatment and Mr Nobbs. Nicole Beeharie and James Badge Dale are especially good in the supporting roles, and the girl on the train at the start and end of the film amazing.
An astonishing film. Do not imagine you can miss it.