Michael Fassbender is a powerhouse of subtlety. Even in big budget fare he shines, but it’s his work with director Steve McQueen that is most recognizable. Both Hunger and Shame are McQueen visions that are fueled by the madness of a singular character played by Fassbender. It’s quite possibly a connection that they have as artists or maybe a niche in which they’ve found the ability to collaborate viscerally and poignantly.
Hunger is an amazingly powerful film that affected me deeply, but Shame is a companion piece that raises the bar and builds the apex of what I hope will become a McQueen/Fassbender trilogy of sorts. It would be awesome if McQueen’s currently in production Twelve Years a Slave is the work that rounds out their collaboration and seals in all the colors and textures and smells a McQueen film packs behind its images.
Many great directors find themselves eventually creating a triptych (whether intentional or not), and it’s not too soon for someone like McQueen (who showed his filmmaking chops very early on) to have this type of style that ultimately results in a common “theme” tying together a few consecutive works. Shame is at times graceful and at other times vicious. It diabolically wears its NC-17 rating with a sense of pride (one that maybe only Europeans can appreciate marketing-wise) that Fassbender’s character himself would shy away from for sure. The images at times are as black as the solitary confinements of the prison in Hunger.
Fassbender plays Brandon, a sex-obsessed business man with some deep-seated anti-social tendencies. While the film’s only negative quality may be the potentially inferable pointless of it all; the irresolution; it’s better viewed as a character study and less as a traditional Hollywood narrative. Carey Mulligan plays the estranged, nearly naïve, waif-like sister / subconscious-level, incestuous lover, who also, in a very Lynchian way, is a lounge singer.
Fassbender’s character arc is one of self-realization to self-treatment to self-dissolution. By the end of the film he is seemingly right back to where he was at the beginning and without correction to his ill-attended issues. The cool thing about McQueen and Fassbender’s way of dealing with this well-trodden cinematic theme is that they never supply an easily blamable cause to the matter. His sex addiction is not depicted as necessarily a power possession or release thing for him, and it’s not really depicted as something stemming from childhood. There’s really no good explanation for why he is the way he is, except that he just is.
Shame is the kind of film you’ll come back to so you can look for the nuances missed the first time around. McQueen’s way of framing a shot has always been like a great impressionist painter, and though the background here is the twinkling lights of New York City, I have no doubt he is the new Renoir using the lens as his brush and the celluloid as his canvas.