Dir. Steve McQueen
(2011, NC-17, 101 min)

I watched Steve McQueen‘s first film, Hunger, in advance of seeing his already controversial followup, Shame, and I’m glad I did. The director’s distinctive style – including loose story structuring and prolonged shots – benefits from an introduction; when you’ve watched an uninterrupted three-minute take of a man cleaning urine with a push broom, you’re prepared for pretty much anything.

Shame received an NC-17 rating for its nudity and frank sexuality, which I think highlights a disparity in the MPAA rating system, in which violence usually gets a pass, while language or sex will put you in the crosshairs. I wrote before about how The X-Files: I Want to Believe received a PG-13 despite scenes of impalement and forced surgery, while The King’s Speech was slapped with an R for its completely non-gratuitous use of the F-word. The sex in Shame, though pervasive, is also not gratuitous or exploitive; had it been torture porn instead, there would likely be no controversy at all: both Hostels and all seven Saw movies were rated R.

As for the film itself, my feelings are mixed. Like Hunger it stars Michael Fassbender, who plays Brandon, a New Yorker with a vaguely corporate job who indulges in sexual compulsions. He hires prostitutes and engages in anonymous or nearly anonymous sex. His apartment is full of porn. So are his computers. These acts in and of themselves might not be evidence of an unhealthy appetite, but it is said that a behavior is an addiction if it interferes with your daily life, and Brandon doesn’t seem to have any daily life at all apart from his consumption of sex; it is the object of every spare moment.

Look away

But we don’t see him take much enjoyment from it. We hear moans coming from his computer speakers, but his expression is blank, not registering desire or pleasure. He is all id but no joy, self-isolated, on autopilot. I was reminded of the scenes from Somewhere in which a Hollywood actor played by Stephen Dorff hires strippers for private dances but watches them with bored indifference. Brandon is kind of like that, not satisfying a need, just filling empty spaces.

But what about this particular sex addict are we meant to find compelling? Where I felt a disconnect from the film was that director McQueen spends much of his time showing us behavior without context. We see Brandon engaged in sex acts, but what is that meant to reflect? That he’s unhappy? That much is obvious. That he’s emotionally unavailable? Ditto. It is not enough to observe that a man is an addict. McQueen must make us interested in the man.

Brandon’s life is complicated by the arrival of his younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who is running away from a bad relationship and may be dysfunctional in her own way. She arrives suddenly on his doorstep and he grudgingly takes her in, though he’d prefer never to be in contact with her. What is the nature of their relationship? What is their shared history? McQueen tiptoes around the details, and I’m ambivalent about what those details should be. It’s a wise choice, I think, not to provide a definitive backstory, because any such explanation would be too pat: they are the way they are because blank. On the other hand, withholding a framework by which to understand their behavior keeps them at arm’s length from us. We see what they do without a clear idea of who they are.

Some individual scenes are remarkable. Perhaps my favorite takes place in a nightclub where Sissy, a lounge singer, performs a slow, haunting version of Kander and Ebb’s “New York, New York.” There are two long-held shots that give the scene its emotional weight, one of her singing and then another of Brandon listening. He cries, and though the specific meaning of his response is left ambiguous, the performances of the actors in those shots, held in tight, intimate closeups by McQueen, suggest a deeper connection between them.

The film as a whole is better in retrospect. Late scenes give us a very faint hint of what might have transpired in their lives, and viewing the story through that prism gives earlier scenes a depth that theretofore had been missing. Though McQueen remains vague and even a bit coy, I wonder if a second viewing, knowing what I know, would give the entire film greater impact. The first time is a tease. But the second time it might go all the way.