As an Englishman, it is my birthright to snigger whenever sex becomes too po-faced for its own good. I like my sex fun, and if it's not fun, I like my sex to be funny, and if it's not funny, my overriding desire is to make it so. I'm sorry, it's just the way I roll; don't hate the playa, hate the game. The sniggering began early in Steve McQueen's Shame, with a scene in which Michael Fassbender's sex addict Brandon attracts the attentions of a married hottie on the New York subway by dint of a series of long, lingering looks: looks no man on screen has attempted - or dared attempt - since the days of David Duchovny in Zalman King's Red Shoe Diaries, and no man in reality has attempted without the immediate involvement of the appropriate transport police.
For all his glowering, the addict returns home alone, where he joylessly pleasures himself before a laptop of hardcore grot, to the lilting strains of the "Goldberg Variations", and you have an image of him, or of McQueen, fingering the CD racks for the right accompaniment: "Don't get me wrong, I love Beethoven, but the 'Adagio' puts me right off my stroke." Later, while walking home from a bar, Brandon will be picked up on the kerb by a woman who'd given his overbearing wingman the brush-off a full hour before, the odds of these two characters coinciding on the street after going their separate ways into the Manhattan night being broadly comparable to mankind finding intelligent life on Katie Price. "Wanna ride?," the woman asks. You get the drift.
Shame redresses itself with a brisk sketch of New York office and body politics: at this dude's place of work, someone's spread a virus to the firm's internal e-mail system (gee, I wonder who), and Brandon, suddenly starved of release, retires to the bathroom to punch his own clock, as it were. Back at his metal-and-glass, isn't-it-empty-ah-but-isn't-it-desirable? apartment, with its rack upon rack of (snigger away) 12" disco classics, our hero finds the order brought to his life through paying and fucking prostitutes disrupted with the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who bursts into the film naked and dishevelled, her roots showing and her arms self-lacerated, woman-as-mess.
Yet Sissy, an aspirant singer whose very business is emotion, is a young woman around whom Brandon is supposed to feel protective, not predatory - indeed, her nightclub rendition of "New York, New York" coaxes a single, desultory tear, perhaps the only bodily fluid he has left, from her brother's cold, steely eyes. (Question: why wasn't Fassbender cast as one of the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds? He'd have been a perfect fit.) Shame starts to make sense the minute Mulligan appears, becomes funnier (deliberately funnier), livelier, and more credible besides; for the first time, there's something at stake in Brandon's posturing - someone on screen who may conceivably get hurt by it, if she hasn't been already.
The film is certainly onto something about frustration and release: it views the addict as automaton-like, conditioned to remove his (its? Fassbender scarcely seems human) trousers every time he hears panting - which gets tricky when it turns out his sister has a better record in the sack than he himself does. When Sissy trills the lines "I want to be king of the hill/Top of the heap", it's as much as anything a challenge to our Viagra-hardened lothario; maybe this is why Brandon weeps. When brother says to sister, with an eye to their living arrangements, "this isn't working out", he's also analysing the longest sustained, most tormented relationship of his entire adult life.
McQueen, for his part, looks to have largely abandoned the video-art strategies that made his feature debut Hunger the striking experience it was, although flickers and echoes remain: in an opening repetition of shots describing the hero emerging naked from rumpled bedclothes and trawling his answerphone in the hope of landing pick-ups for the following night, and in a belated stab at expressionistic troilism - in which Fassbender gives us both his "o" and "po" faces - that half the audience will find transcendental and half (the English half, perhaps) will find hilarious. What's crucial is that awareness of audience: the film is self-conscious in a way Hunger wasn't, commercially minded in its glossy ad-land aesthetic, its casting, and its willingness to lay its performers bare - for even sex addiction sells.
The result is an odd and somewhat offputting mix: in its attempts to film a very contemporary form of alienation, Shame is the closest anybody's got of late to putting the business of an Antonioni film into the multiplexes, yet in such moments as that wherein Sissy interrupts her sibling jacking off in the bathroom, it starts to resemble Fast Times at Ridgemont High with a heavy side order of pretension. The women - which is to say the ones who get scenes, rather than quickies up against an alley wall, or bedroom window: Mulligan, certainly, and Nicole Beharie as the colleague with whom this most damaged of protagonists may still stand a chance - are sharply defined, which helps the film's cause.
But they're sharply defined against the fuzziness of the Fassbender character, about whom we cannot entirely be sure what the film really thinks. Are we supposed to pity him? Care for him? Secretly admire him? Is the shame of the title Biblical? Or is it simply a shame that he won't or can't settle down; that he's in some way clinging - sadly, desperately - to the hedonism New York represented in the 1970s, and cannot bring himself to let go? (Those disco and New Wave records that adorn the soundtrack somehow seem key: this is the same Manhattan where CBGBs has been replaced by luxury apartments and high-end boutiques for corporate drones like Brandon; we should note in passing that "Shame Shame Shame" was a hit for Shirley and Company at the height of the disco era.)
As canvasses go, Shame is more subjective than most: you'll bring to it whatever experience you have of love, sex, obsession, relationships and seduction, and any given review is liable to reveal more about its author than it does about the film. Though McQueen resists doing with sweat and spunk what he did with shit in Hunger (adding to the film's rarefied air), the compulsion of his film resides in the vivid swirls around its edges, in its style, rather than its content, which is occasionally mishandled, and sometimes missing altogether. Shame has something in common with Courbet's The Origin of the World or, indeed, those disco records: they all have holes in the middle of them, which the viewer is invited to find either alluring and inviting, or terrifying, or baffling, depending on personal taste and the length of time they're prepared to spend looking into them. Sometimes, though, as any sex addict worth their weight in Cialis knows, a hole is a hole is a hole.
Personally, even though I was given copious reasons to empathise with the protagonist - we apparently share a bump on the back of our heads, a legacy of a childhood accident, and a fondness for Nile Rodgers' rhythm guitar on the extended mix of Chic's "I Want Your Love" - I still couldn't make head nor tail of him. One glaring absence is any credible sense of how these siblings got this way to begin with; the film is all effect, no cause, all seductive surface, no deep-tissue scarring, and Fassbender's nudity looks to me like an attempt to distract from a performance that remains entirely withholding elsewhere. (Only in our fucked-up world could a filmmaker knock out a notionally hard-hitting drama about sex addiction, and see cinemagoers and critics everywhere emerge saying "phwoar, eh?")
Besides, dare I venture that these aren't problems (boo-hoo, I have too much sex; boo-hoo, I have too much money to spend on sex) that most viewers face at the moment; that, in fact, the bleak socioeconomic theories of Michel Houellebecq - that society is more divided than ever into haves and have-nots: those with the cash to get laid, and those who simply cannot afford to go out - may be more pertinent to this particular moment? McQueen is beholden to a form of alienation that he may very well have studied at art school - that of the art cinema of the 1960s and 70s, whose filmmakers had the luxury of contemplating such issues from a distance - yet three, four decades on, that particular form of alienation has become pretty alienating in itself.
Those scenes in which we watch Fassbender on the prowl prove an unedifying experience, and this is as it's meant, on some level, to be: addiction of any kind is a grim affair, and Brandon's ordeal should be comparable to Renton's headfirst dive into Scotland's filthiest lavatory to rescue his lost drugs in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting. Yet Shame's final mise-en-abîme is dubious-bordering-on-homophobic (after a fruitless quest for stray, Brandon bottoms out in a gay bar, in McQueen's vision evidently the lowest of the low), conservative (just say no, kids), and weirdly unaffecting, no matter how much Glenn Gould McQueen lays over the top: our man still ends up riding the same subway train opposite - what are the chances? - the same married woman, and there's still a hope that, this time, the gal might put out. Some sex addicts have all the luck.
Shame opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.