Sunday, 29 January 2012

shame (d steve mcqueen, w abi morgan)

If anything makes me want to quit writing these things it's a film like Shame. To find myself reacting negatively to the work of someone who's debut feature I enjoyed so much takes the wind out of my sails. It probably makes me look like a malcontent, wilfully perverse. When these essays are supposed to be part of the process of being an active participant rather than a passive one. A mark of respect as much as an indication of my taste, good, bad or indifferent. Perhaps that makes the whole process somewhat narcissistic. Yo que se, as they put it so succinctly in Rioplantense Spanish.

Narcissism is appropriate, because if Shame is anything else, it's an almost grotesquely narcissistic film. Preening in the mirror of its attractive star. And his self-conscious attractiveness. He's a man without any real suggestion of a sense of humour, a kind of idiot savant womanising machine. No wonder he's unhappy. His unhappiness is revealed by shots of his face, contorted, repeated. Or shots of him hiding his face, as though he realises that this face is the cause of all his troubles. People have said that this is a film about sex addiction, or just addiction. It's clearly to a large extent a film about family. And its disfunctionality. But above all it's a narcissistic film about narcissism.

Narcissism isn't terribly attractive. The way to deal with this within a narrative is to observe the narcissist from outside, as in the case of Keats' poem. Try and get inside a narcissist's head and it's not going to be anything other than dull. How does the film attempt to combat this? It does so by purporting to be risque, to be out there, to be about sex and sexual deviance. But in reality that's just the arena for Brandon's narcissism to flower and for McQueen's camera to titillate. Any attempts at narrative within this context have nowhere to go, they are all going to end with an agonised portrait of the agony of Fassbender in his agonising penthouse. The character of Sissy has far more depth than that of her brother; but she is dealt with in the cursory fashion of unhappy females, doomed to do everything you'd expect, coming to a jarringly obvious end.

Hunger was a remarkable film in so far that it felt as though the director trusted his cinematic instincts to triumph at the expense of plot and character. There's a boldness to this attitude which allowed McQueen's visual and aural flair to flower. In Shame this flair is yoked to a pedestrian narrative which if anything seems to dilute McQueen's talents.

There's been a lot of love and garlands for this movie, but to my mind it felt, no matter how much I wanted to like it, like the work of people who inhabit a rarefied world where the makers' brilliance has become so all consuming that they need to make a film about it.  There's an almost Cameroonian air of self-satisfaction to its purportedly bleak examination of what it's like to suffer being overwhelmingly successful. The more Fassbender's face contorts - the agony and the ecstasy - the falser the whole farrago felt. In a way, it's a perfect film for our times, set in the uber shrine of mass individualism which our society is still aspiring to, in spite of the clear failure of the world it depicts.

Maybe I've misinterpreted it. I kind of hope so. 

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