Never has the definition of the orgasm as "la petite mort" been so accurate and acutely explored on the big screen as by artist turned filmmaker Steve McQueen in his sophomore feature. Its hero, New York high-flyer Brandon (impeccably inhabited by Michael Fassbender), seems to live only for his obvious addiction to sex, one where every new orgasm seems like yet another step in his becoming an emotional cadaver, someone for whom instinct has replaced feeling, joy totally chased from his world. Such is the premise Mr. McQueen and his co-screenwriter, playwright Abi Morgan, present the viewer with in a work that is as remarkable and challenging as the director's acclaimed debut Hunger, but more narratively fluent and more conventionally structured.

     Though sex addiction is the evident starting point of the tale, what Shame really is about at the bottom is people coming to terms with themselves. Brandon lives in a comfortable but self-reinforcing cocoon, an illusion of pristine, distant contact where commitment is off-limits and romanticism replaced by mechanical, atavistic desire. But the unexpected arrival of his chaotic sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a lounge singer in town for a run of shows, throws a spanner in the works and forces him to face the desperation and joylessness behind the facade of a successful ladies' man.

     Mr. McQueen's work is as extraordinarily formalist here as it was in Hunger, yet never for its own sake, rather in order to point out a hidden emotional truth in the characters. He therefore goes back to the audacious long takes that were one of the most striking elements in his debut, but uses them now in the service of the story as windows into his characters' souls, from the remarkable speechless subway opening to the stupendous close-up of Ms. Mulligan's wondrous, decelerated cover version of "New York, New York". In this the director is much helped by the all-out commitment of his actors and especially of the fearlessly intense Mr. Fassbender, though Ms. Mulligan finally transcends her gamine image in a role that suggests a better choice of parts might lift her to Michelle Williams status. By the time the old cliche of the cleansing rain comes round towards the end of the film, Brandon's circle of emotions - almost like a trip through Dante's circles of hell - has been made complete and the title's programmatic nature made visible without the word ever having been uttered throughout, leaving the viewer utterly shaken and trying to make sense of what he's just seen.

     A film that lingers in one's mind for weeks, maybe even months after we've seen it, even if not as strikingly unique as Hunger (whose quasi-experimental stylings have been all but smoothed out here), Shame is the second masterpiece in a row from Mr. McQueen.

Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie.
     Director, Steve McQueen; writers, Mr. McQueen, Abi Morgan; cinematography (colour by Deluxe, widescreen), Sean Bobbitt; music, Harry Escott; production designer, Judy Becker; costume designer, David Robinson; editor, Joe Walker; producers, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman (See-Saw Films for Film 4 and the UK Film Council, in association with Alliance Films, Lipsync Productions and Hanway Films), UK, 2011, 100 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo screening room, Lisbon, February 16th 2012. 


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