The Pain of Pleasure and the Pleasure of Pain

“But Reason can never be persuaded that the existence of a man who merely lives for enjoyment (however busy he may be in this point of view), has a worth in itself.” – Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement

In Shame (2011), Steve McQueen’s stunning follow up to his feature film debut – 2008’s Hunger – he shifts his focus from physical confinement to an emotional one, demonstrating along the way that the crush of addiction can be a prison unto itself.

In an incredible performance, Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a thirty-something professional of some sort (though the film spends plenty of time with him at his office, what he actually does remains obscured), living in a comfortable, if impersonal, downtown apartment. McQueen wastes no time introducing us to Brandon’s life or, rather, his ritual: he seems to not so much live as exist in a constant search of his next moment of physical pleasure. His every waking moment is consumed by hungry lust for the physical release of sex. But between all manner of intimate encounters ““ in bed with prostitutes, against a wall with a woman he meets at a bar, in the shower with himself ““ he is in constant search of more. He masturbates in his office’s public restroom, and cannot make it through the workday ““ or even eat dinner ““ without watching endless streams of porn. He seems drawn to this digital world like a moth to a flame; his blank eyes stare at the impersonal blue-green light of his laptop, as he mechanically observes the pleasures.

There are shades of American Psycho here; Brandon has built for himself an antiseptic, controlled world through which to move, and he himself seems cold and removed. But Shame lacks Psycho’s Hollywood gloss, its sheen, and its irony. Instead of Psycho’s self-conscious wink-wink, nudge-nudge, Shame looks you straight in the eye, unflinching, unmoving: exposed.

With wonderfully sparse dialogue, McQueen manages to evoke an intimate portrait of Brandon’s day-to-day life. But when his dramatic whirlwind sister, Sissy (a wonderful Carey Mulligan) shows up to stay with him, Brandon’s thin grasp of normalcy and balance is challenged.

McQueen shows admirable restraint, not only in the aforementioned sparse use of dialogue, but also in his exposition. We know very little about Brandon and Sissy’s childhood, and what has caused their different, but equally crippling, emotional damage. McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan provide only brief inferences (consider Sissy’s remark: “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.”) and lingering questions invoked by their interactions. Their emotional distant and physically comfortable relationship seems to hint at something, but McQueen and Morgan wisely deny their audience easy answers.

While the film’s plot is simple, McQueen builds the film’s energy ““ subtly, almost unnoticed. A night that begins with a quiet, raw, and intimate conversation between Sissy and Brandon builds to an energetic fervour, and ends with an unexpected emotional resonance. And while the film is bookended with scenes of Brandon’s commute in the subway ““ featuring a brief, wordless, but nonetheless incredible performance by Lucy Walters ““ it remains ambiguous. As with their past, McQueen offers no answers about Sissy and Brandon’s future, rightly leaving us to wonder.

The film is a remarkable achievement. I am inclined to say that it is more accessible than McQueen’s first film, if only because it more closely follows a traditional narrative structure. It is without question challenging: its subject matter is incredibly dark and its message ambiguous. And yet it is also a joy to watch. The film is beautiful, and expertly constructed. Its moments of conscious visual artistry ““ a fantastic lengthy tracking shot, an uncomfortably tight close-up of a conversation, a dizzying steadicam journey through a dark club ““ never feel obvious, or indulgent. Fassbender and Mulligan’s performances are both brutally honest, raw, and resonant.

Rarely do I love a film without conditions or caveats; but with Shame, it is the truth.

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