Visual artist and award-winning director Steve McQueen has finally made his mark on international cinema with his 2013 release, “12 Years A Slave”, a controversial and unflinching look at slavery in America in the mid-1800s through the eyes and experiences of a free black man who was sold into slavery. Having already established his visual arts career to significant acclaim (winner of the prestigious Turner Prize, represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale, named Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II, and more), the British-Grenadian artist has created a space to make films on his exacting terms.
This series will review each of McQueen’s three feature films: “Hunger (2008), “Shame” (2010) and “12 Years a Slave” (2013).
Addiction or escapism? A review of Steve McQueen’s "Shame"
By Nneka Luke
In his second feature film, “Shame”, artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen chose to explore the world of addiction through the bracing and explosive performance of his preferred lead and obvious muse, Michael Fassbender. Set in a bleak and timeless New York City, the film is a fascinating and beautifully-shot study of obsession and escapism.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) presents himself to the world as perfectly dressed, neat hair, calm expressions, almost dark and mysterious. He is the voice of reason when he goes out on the town with his boss David, who flirts with every woman who crosses his path. He is a man of means, with a prominent job and a chic apartment.
What the audience is allowed to see though, is Brandon’s almost complete emotional isolation, as he spends his days and nights feeding his addiction, pushing to stay one step ahead of his demons. For those who haven’t seen the film, I won’t reveal what the addiction is; I don’t believe that the acts are the meat of the film—although much has been made of it in other critical writing. The story moves far beyond the acts and illustrates the human ability to cope by escaping into the seductive pleasures of vices in order to ignore the deeper, debilitating issues at the core.
Brandon’s tightly-controlled world and deliberate isolation seem to protect him from his past; a past that comes hurtling into his present when his only sibling Sissy (a wonderfully unhinged Carey Mulligan) invades his apartment one night. The scene where they first meet wonderfully illustrates Brandon’s duality—for a few seconds we see two Brandons, one of whom is a reflection in the bathroom mirror.
Sissy is a singer and a screw-up, her appearance in Brandon’s life immediately unsettling him. The icy gray-blue atmosphere that has defined the look of the film up to that point (his sheets, apartment lighting, his scarf, underwear, work shirt, even his sometimes expressionless eyes) is suddenly injected with Sissy’s colours, a red hat and animal-print jacket now taking centre stage in the frame. Brandon’s vulnerability emerges—despite their troubled past, he wants to be closer to his sister.
Sissy’s obsession seems to be unavailable men. Unlike Brandon, she seems to embrace her emotional pain, wallowing in it, allowing it to envelop her until she takes drastic actions to free herself. She begs for attention from her closed-off brother; she spends the night with his wayward boss after a few compliments and too many drinks. She lives a transient existence, led by her desires to feel closeness and safety. Much is unsaid between Brandon and Sissy, leaving the audience to pay close attention to offhand clues, and to imagine why they have both run away from their shared past.
There is a pivotal moment of emotion for the siblings, which, I think, also marks the beginning of Brandon’s unraveling. He takes his boss David to hear Sissy perform in an elegant lounge flooded with warm yellow light. The camera moves between a tight close-up on a beautifully-fragile Sissy performing “New York, New York”, and Brandon, a pool of emotions bubbling just below the surface, betrayed only by a few tears. Is he touched by her raw and haunting performance? Does the song conjure memories? Another moment where much remains unsaid.
Perhaps it is his sister’s reappearance that moves Brandon to try to open up by forging a romantic connection with a beautiful co-worker. When he fails, he not only falls back into his habits, but after a fight with Sissy, he experiences a complete breakdown—the demons catch up to him, and he descends with them into hell—picking fights, wandering in rooms immersed in red light, the images of his face growing more shadowy, distorted, grotesque.
McQueen’s practiced artistic touch is evident in the film (as it is in “Hunger”) though his ability to infuse beauty and style into his work, no matter the topic. When Brandon goes running at night down a New York street in a scene intended to reinforce Brandon’s sense of isolation, it’s hard to ignore the fluidity of the camera as it follows his movements, Brandon himself running controlled and gracefully, against the city lights of one of the most iconic places in the world.
As the best films do, “Shame” doesn’t end neatly tied up with all the characters firmly on the road to redemption. Also, the audience is left with a sense of some evolution, but no clear answers as to where Brandon and Sissy will go in their lives. With this film, Steve McQueen established his place as a visionary risk-taking filmmaker who can take on any theme. His biggest test also became the film that catapulted him to international film fame: “12 Years A Slave”, which will be reviewed next week.
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