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
You had me at "full-frontal Carey Mulligan nudity"...
Anonymous on Sep 5, 2011
You hated Hunger? Really? Wow... that's a shame.
Kevin on Sep 5, 2011
hey Alex you saying that you didnt like Hunger, got me to check it out, and i actually liked it, i thought it was very well done and got the meassage across really well, what about the film didnt you like? is there a review of it on this site?
Zade on Sep 6, 2011
Paragraph 3: Should it be 'devisive'? Sorry, but I don't get how decisive works there. Hunger was amazing. You are shameful! (okay never again).
Me Nyc on Sep 6, 2011
Er , don't mean to sound the grammar police but it should be 'divisive'. Very great and finely-reviewed article, Alex; I look forward to see McQueen and Fassbender's second collaboration. Hunger was a great work of art, so to know that McQueen has a greater sense of story narrative this time makes me anticipate this movie even more.
Christiane on Sep 8, 2011
The fact that you didn't like Hunger but loved this gives me hope, because I despised McQueen's first movie, but was hopeful about this one because of Fassbender and Mulligan.
Jbaker475 on Sep 5, 2011
Fassbender is awesome, almost a Greek God. I loved every single one of his performances from X-Men to Jane Eyre 🙂
Davide Coppola on Sep 5, 2011
I'm getting more and more excited for this film with all the reviews and tidbits pouring in. I for one, adored Hunger and it appears this film is relatively more accessible while still holding the same sense of existential intensity. It's quite pleasing to hear. Very nice review, Alex. I hope to see more updates this film when they come!
Giovanni on Sep 5, 2011
@buddha1822:disqus Does the film insinuate at a possible incestual relationship between Brandon and his sister in the past? When I read the script, I couldn't help but feel that it was hinting at that.
Vitaliy on Sep 5, 2011
But is it really pornographic? The reviewer uses the word, but does not confirm or deny -- do they have X-rated explicit sex or not? Or is it like cable TV? More softcore than hardcore and everything's simulated?
Nelsie_norris on Sep 5, 2011
It got an NC-17, but the MPAA is useless (i.e. they give higher rating to sex than to extreme violence). This is another of those films that gets away with a lot more explicit stuff because it's "artsy". But Fassbender is a fantastic actor.
Anonymous on Sep 6, 2011
This review by Alex Billington has me SOLD! Well written and I like the fact this a very very New York-sy movie....looking forward to this one. P.S. Michael Fassbender is a pimp!
Conrad Williams on Sep 6, 2011
Re: relationship between siblings potentially incestuous? I felt definitely not. She was so in need of emotional/genuine cuddling, and he was so emotionally frozen. Whatever their shared family trauma, the damaged results played out in different ways. P.S. So intriguing to see Fassbender as Carl Jung in "A Dangerous Method" the same weekend. Still struggling with sexual issues. He's fabulous.
Jenwilson8 on Sep 6, 2011
Michael Fassbender might as well be a God. He is bloody brilliant/fantastic. His charismatic self will always be in my top 3 favorite actors. Ever since Jane Eyre and definitely X-Men: First Class, he is by far my #1. I am excited to death to see him exposed. ^_^ Fassbender's accent always gets me excited too.
Mrcards4 on Sep 7, 2011
I LOVE MICHAEL FASSBENDER!! 🙂 This is going to be life-changing! Cannot wait!!
Jordyn on Sep 7, 2011
Michael Fassbender is one actor filled to the brim with charisma and I have loved him since 300. He just gets better as he goes.
ZONA on Sep 7, 2011
great honest review, Alex, thanks, got me very interested (aside from the obvious fact that both of them are pretty attractive). this is a great actors combination; Fassbender and Mulligan, two of the best of their generation, for my money. great to see them taking roles that challenge them, rather than several easy wins in a row. count me in. if 'it's simply a brilliant character study' and part of that character study is sexual relationships, then it's appropriate. we can all tell if it's gratuitous, just like we can tell if the violence in a film is unnecessary. as @castingcouch:disqus says, the MPAA does seem to have an obsession with rating sex NC17 and allowing violence (and sexual violence) through on an R. which is nuthouse. remember Blue Valentine's first rating?
Anonymous on Sep 7, 2011
Michael Fassbender AND Carey Mulligan? This is going to be so hot.
Miguel Angel on Sep 7, 2011
Er, pretty sure Steve McQueen died of cancer around 1980.
Stevebeer60 on Sep 12, 2011
This film could have been brilliant if not for-- -- wait, no, I'm thinking of something else *entirely.* Sexuality is not a mystery. It is not profound; self-dubbed "studies" into the dysfunctional derivatives of adjacent behavioral realms are equally as useless and intellectually vacuous as the subjects they purport to understand, or even comprehend. There is no philosophical holy grail implicit or even possible in human bodies and their genitalia, nor in how people use them, nor in what other people think and/or do regarding how and/or why they're used on/by/for/against/with each other. There is no art in sex - at least, there has not been any since human civilization as a whole has had the protracted luxury of time to think, as some few of us have indeed enjoyed in abundance these past millennia. Sex is simple. It's easy. It's *NOT* difficult, nor traumatic, nor damaging; those seeming side effects are all symptoms of good ol' indiscriminate ignorance, and ignorance is hardly--I would dare say even rarely--isolated to one's sexual expressions and perceptions in and of real life. It's easy to get caught up in it (for some people) because the subject matter is universal, because it has been re-trending in newly dysfunctional ways for the past few hundred years in particular, and--at least in modern human societies--because the laws of nature have been tamed to the point that the dregs of our species have been allowed to thrive - and, worse, to make every simple, boring facet of everyday life universally uncomfortable for everyone in the universe. But, no matter how modern puppets dress it and themselves up, an old, boring, tired taboo does not an enlightened point make. A real artist would attempt something--anything--beyond the obvious discomfort zone of the simple, useless, frivolous masses; it doesn't take a genius to recognize that "entertainment value" implies a certain level of either or both of social and psychic discomfort in this day and age - nor does it take one to exploit such an obvious fact to sell tickets to fund those back yard swimming pools and white picket fences. Steve McQueen is a pop-faux-intellectual, made painfully and irrevocably obvious with even his first film endeavor. "Shame" continued this trend - and I can not think of a more fitting title for McQueen's legacy than that of this film's. If you value intellect, you should see this movie - but not because it will enlighten--or even stimulate--you in any useful or profound fashion. It won't, because it can't. Don't allow yourself to pretend as if it's anything more than simply another in a seemingly endless cycle of reminders of what is, perhaps, the only profound--accidental--truth to be found in modern "art": that true art is, truly and perhaps literally, a lost art. Let this film serve as the reminder it is--to those very few of you who are not "you all" at all--that "you all" are bored, lost, boring and listless enough to dress up psychic turds in poet's gowns and lamely worship them as kings and queens not just of their lives - but of their very minds.
Recondite on Jun 23, 2012
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