Telluride Review: Steve McQueen's Contemplative Sex Drama 'Shame'
by Alex Billington
September 5, 2011
I've been converted. Three years ago when I saw British filmmaker Steven McQueen's debut film Hunger at the Telluride Film Festival, I hated it, with not much care or concern for McQueen. I've followed from the side as his latest film, Shame, a sexual drama set in New York City, developed with a great cast - Michael Fassbender (who was also in Hunger) as the lead and Carey Mulligan as his sister. Shame premiered at Telluride this weekend, and I will fully admit that I'm warming up McQueen in a very big way. I can now see his potential, his refined, meditative, yet brilliant filmmaking that, while may bore some, fascinated me.
Michael Fassbender stars as Brandon, a 30-something corporate worker who can't control his sex life and desire for sexual activity. His world is turned upside-down when his fragile, younger sister Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan), a beautiful lounge singer, shows up at his apartment one day. It's a story about how sex obsession and over-sexuality is often related to traumatic/troubling experiences in one's past.
Shame is a devisive film, there's no question about it. Much of the older audience here at Telluride likened it to pornography, but I could not disagree more. It's filled with sexual intensity and aggressiveness, plenty of lengthy one-shot takes that McQueen is known for, and meditative character study moments. I went in full well expecting to call some of his shots pretentious, but felt every scene was integral in building up the depths of Fassbender's character Brandon. It's intensely reflective, and it wouldn't work if Fassbender wasn't giving an utterly phenomenal performance. It's his face and every inflection that makes his character so deep, without needing to say much. I wouldn't hesitate calling this one of his greatest performances ever.
The entire film hinges upon Fassbender being so extraordinary in his edgy role. Yes, there's full-frontal Fassbender nudity and there's even full-frontal Carey Mulligan nudity too, plenty of steamy sex scenes throughout, but it's not overindulgent or tasteless. McQueen's filmmaking is refined and realistic, and every shot is always in service of the story. He even has New York City mapped out so perfectly that the subway station Fassbender rides is actually the nearest one to where his apartment is located in Manhattan. There's a scene where the camera follows along the street as Fassbender goes for a jog - for three blocks. Maybe it's just because I love New York, but I reveled in those moments, it made it feel as realistic as it needed to be.
McQueen's Shame is one of those films that sticks with you long after seeing it. Depending on your personal experience with it, it can be unsettling, but it can also be fulfilling. McQueen uses a wonderful score at the start and end to build up the intensity, and there's thrilling moment in the second half that even had me on the edge of my seat. I wasn't sure whether I'd like this film or not, given my experience with Hunger, but I loved it. The opening 15 minutes itself are pure brilliance and the rest of the film does its best to live up to that, delivering an ending that subtly caps things off, but doesn't unnecessarily explain any/everything.
I fully expect there to be both haters and lovers of this film. Deadline's Pete Hammond has already started calling it "controversial" because of its gratuitous sexual content. However, I believe it's simply a brilliant character study that delves into very edgy subject matter that is hard to present on screen without getting that pornography comparison. But that's why I loved seeing McQueen, one of the most talented filmmakers on the rise, address sex and what it means to us, both good and bad. And we need filmmakers who will challenge audiences with stories like this, that not only are shot beautifully, but occasionally make us feel uneasy addressing subject matter that Hollywood too often glosses over.
Alex's Telluride Rating: 9 out of 10