“I find you disgusting.”
These are the first substantive words spoken in director Steve McQueen’s sex-negative new film, aptly titled Shame. They are a misdirection, delivered after a crafty cut to a luxe office meeting, but they are spoken immediately after the film’s subject—Brandon Sullivan, played by a Bale-intense Michael Fassbender—has bought himself a high-end prostitute.
And thus, the main focus and dichotomy in the movie: a constant swing between Sullivan’s clinically posh New York life and his lonely, seamy, uncontrolled sexual obsessions. In early scenes, his life amid stylized, minimalist spaces is a hyperaestheticized odyssey through the pages of Dwell magazine or unhappyhipsters.com, albeit one with lots of full frontal nudity.
McQueen uses lengthy, steady, single-camera shots—sometimes over two minutes long, an eternity in film—with the main character often motionless off to the side of the picture. In some, it seems that Fassbender has been intimidated into sadness and isolation by his own mammoth radiator or load-bearing wall. In others, it’s as if we are voyeurs at a glass-partitioned zoo where the rutting lions and tigers stubbornly refuse to take center stage.
And it all proceeds terribly slowly. As in Hunger, McQueen’s first movie, we are made to live through onscreen extremity in all its sometimes tedious detail. But the ugliness remains so lovely that we are not only at its mercy but wholly compelled by it.
Fassbender’s Sullivan is a fascinating creature: He is a grotesque sex addict whom women constantly want to sleep with. He is aloof, self-contained, upfront with his desires and enormously charismatic as a failed human specimen, even as he gets beaten up outside a bar and ends up blankly orgasming in a gay sex club, even as he meticulously cleans a toilet before masturbating into it. His visiting sister (Carey Mulligan), on the other hand, doesn’t know at all what she wants, hasn’t succeeded at anything and is always at loose ends, but it is she who provides the scene at the true heart of this very controlled, near tour-de-force by director McQueen.
And she does it in a song. Because, apparently, Guy Maddin had it all wrong. The saddest music in the world is actually Frank Sinatra’s egomaniacal “New York, New York” sung much too slowly, in hazy light and cocktail dress and breaking voice, by someone who’s very obviously seen the other side of it. Desire and sex and beauty and success, just plain breaking your heart. NC-17.
86 SEE IT: Shame opens Friday at Cinema 21.