The filmmaker and Turner-Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen is someone who cut a swath through the British art world with his video installations, mainly silent and in black and white, projected on to spaces within galleries; he was only five years out of art school when he won a Turner Prize. And now, with his first two feature films, Hunger and Shame, he has indisputably become one of our most distinctive, compelling film directors.
Hunger , a harrowing, assured account of the last weeks of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, who in 1981 fasted to death in the Maze Prison near Belfast, was the breakthrough film for its lead actor Michael Fassbender, now a global star
The setting for his follow-up film, the controversial and sexually explicitShame , could scarcely be more different. Its central character, Brandon (Fassbender again), is a handsome, thirtysomething ad executive in New York who lives alone in a sleek, minimally furnished apartment. But he is a sex addict, and his affliction dominates his whole life. He accesses pornography on the internet and in magazines, hires prostitutes and picks up women in bars for instant sexual gratification that leaves him feeling empty and full of self-disgust. When his wayward, needy sister, a nightclub singer (Carey Mulligan), comes to stay and imposes herself on his life, Brandon’s already shaky equilibrium crumbles.
Says McQueen of his two films, ‘In Shame, Brandon is an attractive man, he has a good job, he’s well paid, has all the freedoms and all the possibilities you could want. And in this situation he puts himself into a prison. Obviously it’s different from Bobby Sands, who’s incarcerated in a maximum-security prison. Yet within that situation he finds his own freedom. It’s the complete opposite. Both of them use their body to do that. One imprisons himself through sexual activity, while the other frees himself by abstaining from eating.’
In Shame ‘It goes back to the availability of sex. It’s like there’s more fatty food in supermarkets, so people get fat. There’s greater accessibility to alcohol, so guess what? More people get pissed. That’s how it is. Everyone wants to get lost a little bit these days – and understandably so.’
McQueen signature style as a director features long, extended scenes. In Hunger, Fassbender’s Sands and a priest, played by Liam Cunningham, engage in a long debate about the morality of Sands’s hunger strike; for 17 minutes the camera remains static, yet the scene has the ability to keep audiences spellbound.
Such audacious flourishes abound in Shame. In a nightclub, Carey Mulligan sings a slow, bluesy version of the standard New York, New York in its entirety, and the camera stays in close-up on her face for almost the whole duration. In Shame‘s very first scene. Brandon lies in bed, viewed from above, confronting the camera with a dead-eyed stare. His body sprawls horizontally across the top half of the frame; the rest is filled with an expanse of high-priced sheets in a delicate blue, artfully arranged. He is a man alone – with only his demons for company.
‘People go on about those long scenes,’ McQueen says, ‘but it’s not doing something for a trick or gimmick – it’s about doing what’s necessary. Why cut? If you have a close-up and what you’re getting is incredible, stay with it, look at it. It’s about what actually works. The fact is, it’s exciting. There’s film time, and there’s real time. These happenedin real time and that’s exciting. You’re putting an audience in a situation that feels like reality.’
the conflict of the film–we’re given Brandon’s sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who’s everything Brandon’s not. Where Brandon is prosperous, Sissy is homeless (she asks to stay at his apartment for a few days); where Brandon is cautiously self-contained, she is recklessly expressive; where Brandon as played by Fassbender is all hard angles and chiselled muscles. McQueen for a first glimpse of Sissy gives us right off a full frontal view: childlike, with tiny breasts and a slight pudginess developing around the waist. Later Brandon is watching Sissy sing at the nightclub Brandon finds he has shed a teardrop. It’s a crucial moment, a turning point: that drop is possibly the first sign of empathy to be squeezed out of him onscreen.
To complicate matters McQueen adds a strong undercurrent of sexual tension between siblings. Sissy is naturally affectionate; Brandon holds her firmly, and not a little desperately, at arm’s length (he’s like a cokehead asked to safeguard a kilo of cocaine). The tension awakes unknown needs in him–the need, for one, to have a normal relationship with a woman as another person and not some sexual object, not some mere receptacle for his sperm (again, you have this strong sense of foreboding that matters will not end well).
McQueen directs in a series of long takes, framing his characters in a relentless medium shot that on occasion follows them as they move about, but usually sits down patiently to wait for the scene to resolve itself. He repeats shots over and over, of Brandon standing at the subway station like a warrior-knight waiting to ride into battle, or of Brandon pacing naked in his room, a tiger restlessly measuring the limits of his cage. From Mulligan he elicits a minor miracle; where in Nicholas Winding Refn’sDrive (2011) she was a rather dull young mother, here he uses her very same physical immaturity to give the film vulnerability, emotional accessibility, warmth.