Patrick Jensen’s review published on Letterboxd:
I have got to be honest with you, I have been going through some rough times of late, both on a personal and academical level. For that reason, I wanted to revisit one of my all-time favorite films. Since I missed making a review on April Fool's Day and one on Michael Fassbender's birthday (April 02), I thought it was appropriate, along with my personal issues in mind, to review Steve McQueen's Shame. This is a film I have a long history with, and since this is my fourth time watching it, I felt it was time to share my thoughts on it. I have written about this film before here on Letterboxd, but I wanted to make it bigger this time around, as this is a film that just grows on me every time I watch it, and I always find new reasons to enjoy it.
I have one thing to confess, though, before I start this review properly. I actually hated this film the first time I saw it. I found the direction monotonous, the score felt overdramatic, there were scenes that I back then felt made no sense, mostly towards the ending, and most of all, I was annoyed that this film didn't explore its subject matter of sexual addiction. The fact that I got angered at the lack of an exploration of sex addiction proves to me how expectations affect how you view the film. It was only after I read that Steve McQueen wanted to convey the dangers of addiction, not necessarily sexual, that I started thinking that I might have gone into the film with the wrong mindset. So I watched it for a second time, liking it more, and after the third watch, I was completely enamored by the film. I know some of you might consider it cheating to look up the director's intent with the film, as it should be somewhat clear within the finished film, but it does help if you have some lingering curiosity about a film that you wanted to enjoy more.
Now, if you want a film that explores sexual or romantic addiction and the way contemporary media affects us in those terms, you should watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon instead, not only because I think it is underappreciated, but also because it handles its subject matter in a serious, yet also very entertaining manner. It is in many ways a great romantic/sexual comedy.
So, if you read this and happen to know me personally, you might want to ask me why I adore this film. Yes, I am far from the person that Brandon Sullivan is. I don't care that much about my physical fitness. I don't have ambitions about a desk job. I'm not a sexually active person, and I can't talk to a woman without coming off as a man bereft of confidence. So why can I relate to this film? Well, as different an individual as I am from Brandon, we both share one key thing: emotional detachment from our surroundings. This distance from the people in my everyday life, who I desperately want as a part of my life, is something that I am all too familiar with. Sure, in contrast to Brandon, I have good relations with my family members, even if we don't always agree on everything, but when it comes to people I want as friends or potential lovers, I can't help but find it impossible to let them into my life. Brandon's emotional problems here in Shame are the kind of emotional problems that I can see myself in, and it also makes me think that everyone I know, who might seem successful on the surface, could actually share the emotional problems that I have. But even then, I still find it difficult to relate to my peers to such an extent that I just can't break the cycle, and I think this film conveys this feeling most accurately in my opinion.
Now, how does this film manage to accomplish such an enormous feat as to make me relate to a character who is completely different from me? Well, it's not just in the great writing for the characters and the performances from Michael Fassbender (who should have won an Oscar for this performance), Carey Mulligan and James Badge Dale, who gets funnier for every time I rewatch this film (how can you say that you don't know the meaning of the word "creampie" with a straight face?). The primary reason I love this is Steve McQueen's direction and the cinematography by Sean Bobbitt. Those aspects need their own segment.
Small things, such as darkness being used to convey uncanny presences, and sex being portrayed as something sad and without emotional investment, work efficiently and never seem too stylish. An example of this is when Sissy (Carey Mulligan) has let herself into Brandon's apartment. We see on Brandon's face and hear in the lighthearted music that something isn't right, and it is only when he crosses the darkness between his living room and bathroom that he realizes what's going on. That, I thought was a great way of showing Brandon's isolation and feeling of distrust towards his surroundings, as he instantly sets up a wall towards any form of emotional connection. That is something I can relate a lot to on a personal level, as my instant reaction to the prospect of creating an emotional connection with someone is to reject them, due to the fact that I have felt betrayed in the past by people I had befriended, who ultimately were just using me for their own gain.
The long takes are the most admirable aspect of the film to me. The long running scene, which shows how alone and distanced Brandon is in such a populated city as New York works great to show us how Brandon is just the symptom of a bigger issue with contemporary society. Technology might have made us better connected with each other, but ironically enough, there is still a lack of intimacy in our personal lives, so we might try to simulate a sense of emotional connection to the people in our lives through casual sex. That's at least how I like to interpret this excellent scene.
I can find a lot of things to praise this film for, but I feel like I have to comment on what I perceive as flaws to this film. No film is perfect in my eyes, and I only give top ratings to films that connect with me emotionally and impress me technically to such an extent where I can forgive the flaws of the film. First of all, while the scene with Carey Mulligan singing New York, New York is beautiful, I still wish it could have been done with a song that wasn't as overplayed as it happens to be. The score can also be a bit overdramatic in the beginning, and having a red tinted camera in a gay bar seemed like a bad idea, as it can lead to people (mis)interpreting it as an anti-gay film. With the latter flaw, I have to say it depends on how you interpret it, I see it as a reflection of Brandon reaching his personal nadir, but honestly, while I can get vexed at these things, they ultimately don't bother me. But I do understand why they can bother others.
In conclusion, Shame is one hell of a fantastic film. It is a film that just gets better with every rewatch for me, and while I can't guarantee that reaction for everyone, I hope have made a good point out of why I love this film so much. I apologise if it got too lengthy, but this is what happens if I'm passionate about the subject I'm writing on.