“Shame” begins with slips and slides of sound. A pulsing electronic alarm leads into a score that will tick throughout with metronomic measures as Brandon (Michael Fassbender) lies awake, artfully covered with the wadding of a cool blue sheet. It’s a chilly, spent evocation of the writhing of figures in torment of paintings by Francis Bacon: from sleep-starved repose, this man will move into his city day. Ritual, repetition unfold aurally: sounds of the upstairs neighbor stirring, then the high hum of the street and the screech of a train entering a Manhattan subway station. And in a bit: the splat of feet on floorboards, the spritz of shower, a thonking doorbell, a door that slams with a characteristic sprawnnng sound.
Immediately, Steve McQueen, the director of “Hunger” asserts, in declarative, annunciatory style, a density of sound: city ambience, not so crunchy and far from sludge. These are the sounds of mornings of recovery, Red Bull and Ray-Bans for this handsome man. Brandon works at an office job, we don’t know what he does, at a cubicle that looks out onto the sky, filled with windows of others who look out onto the sky. He dresses well. He looks good. He calculates: that’s what he does.
On street level, he cruises women incessantly. City as ritual; work as ritual; compulsive fucking as ritual. Brandon patterns his life in every way. Sissy, his sister (Carey Mulligan), lets herself into his place unexpectedly one day, messes with that, knocks him for a loop. They readily make each other bleed. Nudity is rife. Why? “Shame” doesn’t lean toward therapeutic resolution but instead toward repetition, behavior patterns. Were this brother and sister abused by family members? Each other? Does Brandon’s insistent fuckery mask further denial, deeper “shame”? McQueen and co-screenwriter Abi Morgan (“Brick Lane,” “The Iron Lady”) don’t tell; they show.
McQueen’s compositions are superb with an eye for the city’s grave chill, but he claims to watch how actors move, and he also takes advantage of what practical locations offer. (The words “World Trade Center” jar in one especially important shot.) There’s an extended traveling shot of Brandon jogging early in the morning that ends with Madison Square Garden in view, and in the foreground, a sprung, cracked, still-working traffic signal, the white man in the box, cocked on his side, insisting “cross-cross” while an unseen overhead light flickers to life. After the production asked a food cart vendor to move, the man had knocked the signal askew. “We could have put it back, but I left it like that. It was perfect. It was gorgeous. He knocked it down, and was like, ‘The police…’ ‘No, no, leave it. It’s fantastic. Wonderful,'” McQueen told Movieline earlier this week. “It was hand-in-glove for us. Perfect for that moment when Brandon is jogging on the spot before he crosses. It was genius.”
In essential design elements, “Shame” has a voluptuous sobriety that outstrips even the unadorned duplex apartment of Sean Penn’s grown boy in “The Tree of Life.” Other patterning is as stark—Sissy: sister; Brandon: branded. Too simple but there and shiny. It’s the same way McQueen lets words and signs he’s found float behind the characters: meaninglessly meaningful? Effortlessly suggestive? (An abrupt fuck upside the side of a building has the letters “F U C K” in so-white spray-paint right there.)
Sissy’s a singer, and Mulligan sings a tremulous, elongated version of “New York New York” in a lengthy close-up: “I want to wake up in that city that doesn’t sleep and find that I’m king of the hill top of the heap; my little town blues they are melting away I’m gonna make a brand new start of it in old New York.” Brandon can’t help himself: he tears up. All the song choices are blunt, a punch when you expected a tickly slap. “Rapture”? “My Favorite Things”? It’s gleeful contrivance.
Another long take—remember, McQueen’s first feature, “Hunger” has a seventeen-and-a-half-minute take—plays out the discomfiting comedy of a dinner date served by a lousy waiter. All goes awry in movement and moment and minutiae. Every social grace, every touch toward intimacy, alarms Brandon. His date asks, “What’s your longest relationship” as we hear the suck sound of a wine cork as it’s pulled, she pulls a face, wrinkles her nose, we hear the wine slop into a glass: it’s the contortions of Brandon’s insides, as well.
McQueen strips away explanation, and Brandon and Sissy’s destructive actions are demonstrated not in volleys of judgment but in this sort of descriptive concatenation: sounds of the city and calls of the loin and primal, primal unspeakables, sometimes spoken, arise casually and insistently. New York, New York: A parallel fuckbeast. While it’s referring to a computer, one of the first lines in “Shame” is a tossed-off “Some kind of virus.”
The play of eyes and dance of glance in the last scene is a tease, another tease, still, teasing, repeating, as another possible scenario unfolds. Brandon and a woman watch each other, look away. In mid-focus in the near background an older man’s dangling yellow scarf like the woman’s shoulder-length blonde hair—cold colors, cool composition, rhyming elements. Tick-tick-tick. Brandon looks, watches, what does he see? What’s behind his wide-eyed vulpine watchfulness? Shame? Hunger.
“Shame” opens Friday at Landmark Century.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.