Steve McQueen’s Shame, a study of sex addiction starring Michael Fassbender, is one of the talking-point films of the awards season. FQ Writer-at-Large MARK FISHER is impressed by its sense of emptiness.
In Shame, Steve McQueen transforms New York into a non-place. Marc Augé coined the term to refer to the anonymous and interchangeable zones of transit—retail parks, shopping malls, airports—which increasingly dominate contemporary culture. We learn that Shame’s lead character, sex addict Brandon (Michael Fassbender), was born in Ireland but grew up in New York, and his migration handily captures the transition between McQueen’s first feature, Hunger, which dealt with the 1981 hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, and the new film. McQueen has pointedly left behind the heavily coded, multiply overwritten territory of Northern Ireland’s Troubles in the 1980s for the bland vistas of upscale New York in the twenty-first century. These are quite clearly high-end non-places—the apartment in which Brandon lives, the office where he works, and the hotel where he takes a co-worker for a failed liaison have the unobtrusive minimalism which still connotes expensive taste. But they remain non-places: it’s sometimes difficult to know whether we’re in Brandon’s apartment or the hotel room. Shame’s New York is as lacking in temporal as spatial signifiers. At points, the film’s soundtrack pointedly calls up an older moment, when music could capture a particular time and place. The disco of Chic and the post-punk of Tom Tom Club and Blondie that Brandon hears in clubs and bars were once rooted in a specific New York era, but they’re now as “classic” in their own way as the Bach that Brandon prefers to listen to as he jogs through the city.
Apart from his sex addiction, practically everything about Brandon is generic, depersonalized. His job, never fully specified, seems to be something in advertising or branding. This vagueness profoundly irritated Ignatiy Vishnevetsky: “every scene ladled with big dollops of cinema’s most respectable cop-out: ambiguity … Shame wears its emptiness like a badge of honor; McQueen is trying for banal blankness, and though he succeeds in that respect, you kind of wish that a filmmaker (and one with a background as an artist at that) would aspire to do more than just say nothing.” But far from being something that you might expect an artist to refrain from, isn’t compulsory ambiguity precisely a signature of so much contemporary art, which regards “saying something” as an unpardonable vulgarity, and which would far rather “raise questions” than make any kind of determinate statement? When McQueen does try to say something, Vishnevetsky complains, it is staggeringly clichéd: “’sex can be both a dehumanizing and transcendent experience’ (you don’t say!), ‘addiction can take over a person’s life’ (really?), ‘people are often motivated by past trauma’ (well, I’ll be!), and ‘we live in a culture that nourishes emotional isolation.’” At its worst, Shame comes off like a standard melodrama remade with arthouse ellipses, complete with what Rob White called “conventional therapy-speak psychology that holds childhood responsible for adult compulsions.” At its best, however, Shame isn’t “saying nothing” so much as it is telling something about nothing, about the non- of the non-place.
Brandon himself seems to have been projected from the non-places which he inhabits. He is to post-crash Manhattan what Patrick Bateman (in American Psycho) was to boomtime New York: the city’s psychopathology rendered no longer as perversely humorous extravagance but as dour furtiveness, its traces to be found not in a mutilated corpse but on a soiled hard drive. Superficial charm covers over a terrifying nullity, and you suspect that Brandon’s sex addiction covers over a deeper impulse to flee from that central nothingness. The film is called Shame but shame is conspicuously lacking from it emotional palette, which is as subdued as the architecture on which McQueen’s camera lingers. Shame is dominated by such an overwhelming sense of affectlessness that it could be about depression as much as sex addiction. Even when Brandon clears out his porn hoard, there’s a sense of utilitarian purposiveness about his actions rather than a purgative self-disgust. Just as the office is barely distinguishable from the hotel room, so there’s a grim continuity between Brandon’s (vaguely defined) work and his addiction–compulsion, which is as lacking in affect as labor. The affect that does occasionally flare up in Shame—for instance when Brandon returns home to find his sister Sissy having sex with his boss, or when he fails to perform in the scene with the co-worker—is a kind of inarticulate frustration.
Shame is at its most powerful when it explores the bleak phenomenology of Brandon’s loneliness. Carey Mulligan is fine as Sissy, yet the whole dynamic which Sissy’s character brings to the film introduces some of Shame’s weakest elements. The arrival of Sissy, inevitably, brings Brandon’s carefully controlled libidinal economy into crisis. Her equally inevitable act of self-harm, as well as her therapeutic editorializing—“We aren’t bad people; we’re just from a bad place”—relieve us of the disturbingly anonymous automatism which elsewhere governs the film, and throw us back into the well-formed causality familiar from “conventional therapy-speak.” This same therapeutic causality is invoked in the scene with the co-worker, with Brandon’s impotence implicitly explained by his desire to “retain control,” something McQueen has underlined in interviews about the film. Shame is most convincing—and most unsettling—as a kind of post-traumatic cinema. It’s post-traumatic not in the usual sense that it explores the impact of a trauma, but in the sense that it implies a situation in which trauma no longer plays a decisive role in explaining either behavior or psychology. Throughout most of Shame—everywhere, in fact, apart from in Sissy’s remarks—the old psychoanalytic relation between trauma and compulsion has been disarticulated. What survives is a blind compulsion, radically illegible, incapable of giving any account of itself; and this depthless compulsion might be the psychopathology—or rather the psycho-non-pathology—of the non-place.