Back in 2008, I struggled with the religious imagery of Steve McQueen’s debut feature Hunger (2008). I struggled with it because it seemed too obvious and because the troubles had been cast in that particular light altogether too many times. I have since rewatched Hunger and I now realise that I was wrong. I was wrong to read the film as being Catholic in sentiment and I was wrong to argue that it was simply retreading old ground. When I said that Hunger “cannot get out from under the weight of cinematic history”, I might as well have been writing about my own review. Given that my fondness for Hunger has grown over the years, I was somewhat reluctant to go and see his second feature Shame at the cinema. Aware of my history of not ‘getting’ McQueen’s films and concerned that the film’s subject matter struck me as over-exposed and boring, I waited for the DVD release… and then waited some more. In truth, I was happy to let this film slip away from me until I was offered a review copy. Just When I Thought I Was Out… As a result, Videovista have my review of Steve McQueen’s Shame and it is full of ambivalence.
Set in an economically prosperous but emotionally barren New York City, Shame tells of a successful man who devotes his life to the pursuit of orgasms. Orgasms by hand, orgasms by mouth, orgasms by any means necessary and to the exclusion of all other avenues of pleasure and fulfillment. Moving from one nameless sexual partner to the next, the character leads an admirably simple life and appears to experience none of the downsides traditionally associated with a hedonistic lifestyle. However, this simple existence is thrown out of balance when the character’s emotionally incontinent sister comes to stay. Suddenly plagued by feelings of shame, the character attempts to re-invent himself as a normal person only to fall at pretty much the first hurdle. While much has been made of the film’s interest in the question of sex addiction, my view is that the film is attempting to do what it says on the tin, namely examine the role of shame in making us do the things we do:
What distinguishes Shame from the likes of Lost In Translation and Up In The Air is that it pointedly refuses to use the same psychological model as most films and TV dramas. Most film and TV writers create their characters using a somewhat simplified version of Freudian psychodynamics. In particular, they tend to be very fond of the Freudian concept of displacement whereby an irrational over-reaction to one thing is actually the product of a rational but socially unacceptable reaction to something else. For example, in Up In The Air, George Clooney’s character comes across as excessively hostile to a co-worker who is attempting to force him off the road and into an office job. Initially, this reaction seems perfectly understandable but as the movie progresses and Clooney’s character becomes more and more unreasonable; we learn that the true source of his unease is the fact that he has no social bonds and hates the hugely successful career that he has built for himself. Some critics have sought to interpret Brendon’s sexual escapades in light of an unmentioned childhood trauma, but McQueen pointedly makes no reference at all either to Brendon’s inner life or to the emotional life of his childhood. The reason for this is that McQueen wants us to focus only upon that which we can see and what we see is a man who is forced out of his comfort zone because he feels ashamed.
While I think that McQueen’s attempt to break new psychological ground is nothing short of heroic, I am not convinced that the film ever gains any traction on the concept of shame. Add to this the lack of visual firepower and what you’re left with is a quite traditional arty drama held together by two decent performances. Which is a recipe for Oscar-bait, not thought-provoking cinematic art.