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Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender reunite for this sex addiction story

Shame

Directed by Steve McQueen

Opens Dec. 16 at the Charles Theatre

It should come as no surprise

that director/co-writer Steve McQueen’s background is in fine art.

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Shame

’s aesthetic is sharply focused; McQueen carefully places every detail in every frame. From the sterile, IKEA-chic apartment of the film’s protagonist to the lights of New York City,

Shame

is steered from start to finish by its director, for better or for worse. Unfortunately for the inhabitants of the film, when it comes to their fates, it’s mostly for worse.

Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is a guy with a vague semi-high-power hip office job, the kind with a boss in a hoodie/suit-jacket combo and an office with enormous glass windows everywhere. Under the surface, it turns out he’s also hiding a serious sex addiction. Within the first few scenes of the film, the extent of his habit is laid out: hookers, furious masturbation, and raunchy porn over takeout, to name but a few of his everyday activities. For the most part, he manages to keep a clear divide between his sex life and his professional life, but when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) drops back into the picture, that line starts to blur.

Before her arrival, Brandon’s world is fairly simple, and McQueen paints a clear portrait of it. The color palette of the film—pre-Sissy—is muted. Everything comes in either white or some shade of blue or soft brown. When Brandon returns to his apartment one evening, he’s alarmed to hear music blasting beyond the front door. He finds Sissy, uninvited, showering inside, her clothes scattered all over. From the narrow end of a baseball bat, he dangles her crimson scarf with a look of distaste. It’s vibrant, loud, and unlike anything he would allow into his carefully controlled life.

While Brandon lacks emotion, Sissy bubbles with passion, whether she’s weeping ardent “I love yous” to an unseen ex over the phone or cackling with laughter. Her brother shuts down at any sign of intimacy, but she sops it up and demands it from those showing any hint of offering. As the title suggests, they’re both sharing a burden from the past, and they shoulder it in very different ways.

McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan carry a heavy load as well, tackling a story that could easily snowball into something far too bleak for most viewers to handle. The film certainly isn’t afraid to shock, that’s for sure, but it does know when to pull back and let the audience put the pieces together themselves. For instance, during one particularly long and awkward sex scene, a single shot stretches into eternity, and as the fire and excitement decay we witness just how swiftly any sign of intimacy can unravel our protagonist. Very little is said, but through subtle actions and inflections and sparse dialogue, it turns out you can say volumes.

In the few dialogue-driven scenes,

Shame

goes for a bold choice. Rather than cut from one actor to the other in a series of shots, it holds one continuous take. While this can be a hassle to shoot (if an actor flubs a line at the end of the scene, you have to start again from the top), it does allow the characters to naturally develop their reactions. The practice also effectively builds tension in some key moments where we’re given some insight into what makes the Sullivans tick. You know something is about to snap, but you don’t know when.

For a film with so much sex, there is very little

sexiness

in it. McQueen places the viewer in the mind of an addict, forever chasing the next fix. It’s less about allure and more about flesh hitting flesh. In many ways, his depiction of the human body hearkens back to his previous film

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Hunger

(2008), about a fatal 1981 Irish Republican Army hunger strike also starring Fassbender. Both films show what the male form is capable of when taken to extremes, and both contain some seriously cringe-worthy moments. Yet despite the ugliness portrayed in the films, they’re also gorgeously shot without feeling

too

exploitative. Deep red blood on white ceramic tile. Thrusting, unidentifiable body parts. Extreme closeups of faces contorted in either ecstasy or agony. Through it all,

Shame

manages to magnify elements of the characters’ lives without getting too abstract. By holding onto their humanity in the face of all the sex, violence, and secrets, McQueen has proven with his second feature that he can uphold his focused artistic vision without getting too myopic.

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