At the midpoint of Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), what had heretofore been a largely dialogue-free immersion into the sights, sounds, and smells of an Irish prison takes a pointed interlude for a veritable torrent of discourse. In a lengthy, unbroken two-shot followed by two shorter close-ups, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and Father Moran (Liam Cunningham) debate the efficacy and morality of Sands’ plan to undertake a hunger strike in protest against the British Government’s refusal of political status for himself and his IRA comrades. In a film whose every sequence is designed to provoke a reaction from the viewer, this is a particularly clever kind of shock tactic: reintroducing agency and actorliness after reducing the cast to little more than Foucauldian functionalism, bodies regulated, ravaged and rebelling within a closed system of surveillance. If this is a transparent tactic, it’s also pretty successful, demonstrating how the carceral corporeality witnessed previously is not simply a matter of oppression and subjugation, but a complex battle for position where even the involuntary functions of the body—pissing, shitting, decaying from wilful lack of nourishment—become part of an ideological arsenal, instruments of will rather than indices of helplessness.
McQueen’s clever, airtight construction is impressive even though it is admittedly off-putting for some in its rather ruthless deliberateness, and the Fassbender-Cunningham duet is an apt litmus test for the merits and limits of McQueen’s project. According unusual freedom to two fine actors to set the rhythm and tone of the sequence themselves—essentially ceding (overt) control over the mechanism that he has tightly controlled heretofore—McQueen also renders them, reduces them to, more highly developed specimens within his cabinet of human curiosities. Isolating the players in neutral space, McQueen makes “acting” a corporeal property to be studied and contemplated along with the hands, arms, faces, etc. on which he had previously focused his attention. In rendering acting a phenomenological as opposed to a psychological or artistic element, McQueen echoes a well-established art cinema tradition stretching from the Nouvelle Vague to Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, the Dardennes, Lisandro Alonso, Albert Serra, and any number of other accomplished contemporary filmmakers. But there’s a prevailing feeling of canny appropriation accompanying his particular usage, a sense that he is mimicking certain tried-and-true motifs of art cinema—narrative obliqueness, forced compositions, and especially duration—rather than using them to any purposeful end.
While Hunger’s undeniably effective yoking of corporeality and ideology ultimately vindicates its more programmatic aspects, its successor succumbs with quite impressive totality to all that one suspected was most opportunistic about McQueen’s self-impressed aesthetic. Shame is a quietly spectacular failure, and an exploitation and betrayal of its chief resource: namely, Fassbender, reporting for a second tour of duty and placing his considerable talent in the hands of a director looking to both reap its benefits and subordinate it to his own sterile design. Controversy-hunting once again, McQueen goes from political provocation to that other art cinema standby, sexual provocation. Fassbender’s Brandon (no last name, for he is not a person but a Sign of the Times) is the prototypical contemporary hollow man, the well-groomed, sharply suited white male practicing an unspecified corporate trade in a many-windowed, functionally minimalist office, and retiring at night to his super-orderly Manhattan bachelor pad. With every shorthand indication of a massive spiritual crisis plodding into place, it remains only to introduce the deliciously degrading element to contrast with the super-modern sterility: Fassbender’s super-WASP is a full-blown erotomaniac, filling his work computer with porn, jerking off in the office washrooms, welcoming nightly call girls to his apartment, and sundry other naughty practices. McQueen shoots Brandon’s various depredations with the kind of ostentatious objectivity that, in loudly renouncing judgment, delivers it damningly by implication. As Brandon walks naked through his apartment (with Fassbender casually dangling that already notorious appendage) through McQueen’s oh-so-carefully bisected composition, then urinated while a female voice on his answering machine implores him to pick up, it’s clear that this man is crying, if not for help, at least for the epiphany clearly due for delivery.
Revelation duly arrives in the form of sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, the elf princess straining to be the bad girl), who is less a character than another of McQueen’s over-clever contrasts: volatile, scattered, impulsive, broke, with hideous sartorial taste and an exhibitionistic streak, she is, of course, Brandon’s opposite in every way. (She’s introduced stark naked in Brandon’s shower, allowing McQueen to cross both male and female frontal nudity off his list of arthouse pre-reqs.) Temporarily moving in with the unwilling Brandon, Sissy catalyzes her brother’s inevitable breakdown and allows McQueen to really get his formalist jones on with an awe-inspiring string of awful sequences. Sissy is a chanteuse, so Brandon and his would-be pussy-hound boss David (James Badge Dale) repair to a tony rooftop restaurant to see her perform an unlikely, painfully protracted rendition of “New York, New York” in a long, long close-up that is—the word must be used—embarrassing to watch. In an offensively stupid turn of events, Sissy accedes to David’s slimy come-ons, and the trio disembark at Brandon’s pad where the amorous twosome start loudly fucking in the bedroom while our boy Brandon grasps his head in agony and then goes out for a three a.m. jog, captured (one should say, again, “of course”) in an unbroken lateral tracking shot.
McQueen could have perhaps justified this ridiculously unlikely scenario by depicting it as a power play on David’s part, revenging himself on his effortlessly seductive subordinate—Brandon had earlier scored an alleyway fuck with a leggy Madison Avenue blonde with whom David had struck out—by actually carrying out that ultimate macho taunt. (Rather penultimate, mating with the mater taking the top prize in the one-upmanship Olympics.) But the sequence simply hangs there, just one more stage-managed setpiece in the film’s parade of degradation, pretending to arthouse opacity as a cover for its inexplicableness. With impressive bad faith, McQueen attempts to deploy a materialist, anti-psychological formalism to what is, in essence as well as outline, a case-study scenario. Scattering telltale hints throughout—Brandon’s single tear while listening to Sissy’s musical stylings, the incestuous intimations when Sissy crawls into bed with him and is violently ejected, his inability to perform in bed with the Nice Girl From the Office immediately followed by an artfully composed rutting session with a hooker up against a windowpane—McQueen finally refrains from explanation. Yet what might otherwise be a compassionate, Pialat-style accession to the ultimate unknowability of any human being is undercut by his pretentious reaching after larger significance. Setting Brandon’s particular malady against the cold glossiness of la vie yuppie, Shame aims to capture an Antonionian tenor of the times absent Antonioni’s penetrative, recombinative artistry; where Antonioni’s surfaces bespeak an absorbed, contemplated, and recreated interiority, McQueen’s are simply struck poses, an inherited lingua franca of alienation juiced by would-be scandalous sexuality.
Something pertinent, if not exactly revelatory, could potentially be drawn from examining how the commercialization of sex interacts with, or sheds light on, the larger commercialization of human existence. But the hilarious extremity of Shame’s scenario invalidates it as grandly implicative statement—and it is not its extremity that thus invalidates it, but its hilariousness. (Bergman, for one, used the extreme sensitivities of his protagonists, their very unlikeness with the greater proportion of humanity, precisely to draw out the latent breadth of emotion and experience within every human being.) Scene after scene is so predictable in its attempted shock, so de rigueur in its degradation, so forced in its reaching for ironic contrast (the winner: a brutal sibling argument set against one of those old, public-domain cartoons that always seem to be playing on TV in movies), that the film becomes a classically inadvertent comedy. See Brandon undertake a frenzied purification of his pad, which yields up three hefty garbage bags’ worth of smut; see Brandon embark on a ferocious nocturnal debauch, complete with (gasp!) a homosexual liaison in what Reverse Shot’s Michael Koresky aptly, and hysterically, dubs “a den of bearded iniquity”; see Brandon indulge in a climactic (sorry), soul-destroying three-way, his face contorting in orgasmic agony as the already overbearing score ramps up to Wagnerian bombast.
The real shame in all this is the misuse of Fassbender, who acts his stillborn role with fierce intensity and a flagellant’s dedication. (One hopes that his rising profile doesn’t condemn him to heightening, and caricaturing, this self-punishing streak such that he becomes a given quality, a kind of Michael Shannon of masochism.) As Hunger’s centrepiece sequence demonstrated, there’s some potentially fascinating territory to be explored in the combination of an ambitious director’s distanced formalism and a skilled actor’s brilliantly calibrated immersion. The demands and potential embarrassments of a performance such as Fassbender’s in Shame necessitates that an actor conceive of the part as an organic whole, as a full person—which makes it a cruel irony that the film’s director has made of the role nothing but a series of empty stimulations.