January 21, 2012 § 5 Comments
I feel as if this post should start with a big caveat: I’ve never written about film before. And in choosing Shame as the first one I tackle, I haven’t exactly set myself the easiest task. That being said, I don’t want to write about Shame as a film critic, but as an art historian.
One of the things that’s struck me about all the reviews of Shame that I’ve read is how little attention is given to the film’s artistry. But Steve McQueen is a visual artist by training and background, and his aesthetic choices aren’t a mere frill, they’re essential to telling the story. I’ve never heard him talk about any particular art-historical heroes or influences, but from the very first frame of Shame I felt as if I were watching Egon Schiele’s drawings brought to agonizing, heart-wrenching life.
The opening shot – one of McQueen’s famous long takes – of Brandon (Michael Fassbender) lying in bed, sheets pooled around his hips, gazing glassy-eyed into space and looking more dead than alive, looks like an almost direct quotation of Schiele’s Self-Portrait (The Preacher), down to the crumpled blue drapery. That’s probably the most obvious parallel from a formal standpoint, but the other drawing I had in the back of my mind for much of the film – which seems to crystallise the cruel paradox of Brandon’s addiction, the severing of physical act and emotional intimacy – is slightly earlier and rather more notorious: a self-portrait in which Schiele depicts himself masturbating, his gesture and apparent arousal utterly at odds with the expression of haunted despair in his eyes. (That one is decidedly not safe for work so I’m not posting it, but it lives at the Albertina and you can see it here:
Elsewhere Schiele is present more in spirit than in direct quotation. One of the most distinctive elements of his style is the way he rendered his figures’ skin – the tone is never uniform, the colour far removed from what we would recognise as ‘normal’ flesh. Instead, it’s a dirty white mottled with green, pink, blue, sometimes even red and purple, suggesting bruises blooming under the skin, exposed nerve endings, scarring both physical and psychic. Brandon’s equally damaged sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) also wears her scars on the outside, her arms filigreed with white lines; Brandon’s are painted on by the play of light – again, most noticeably in the opening shot, but throughout the film as well.
Or think of Schiele’s mise en page. He seldom bothered to anchor his figures in a recognisable setting, leaving them adrift on the white of the paper with, at most, a cloth to lie on – they are trapped within their own bodies, unable to escape themselves or their demons. Brandon’s empty white box of an apartment seems like a three-dimensional equivalent of Schiele’s blank sheets, and although that three-dimensionality grants him a superficial freedom of movement (albeit into other similarly blank, anonymous spaces), it also dramatises his entrapment even more cruelly.
One last parallel (subjective, I’ll admit) between Shame and Schiele – their devastating emotional impact. Even though the Albertina print room is a far from congenial setting for viewing drawings, Schiele’s least of all – they were handed to me one at a time by a burly attendant with whom I could only communicate in a combination of mime and my paltry German and who hovered over me while I looked – I remember wandering the neighbouring streets in a daze afterward and eventually repairing to Demel to dull the pain with sugar. The town in southern California where I saw Shame lacked an equivalent of Demel so when I emerged from the cinema with tears still streaming down my cheeks, all I had was a three-mile walk home on which to pull myself together (and, truth be told, it took several days after that). That may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s because – despite the extremes to which Schiele and McQueen push their subjects – there’s an inherent humanity, sympathy, even tenderness to their work. It goes a fair way to explaining why, almost a century after his death, people are willing to travel long distances (and put up with print room bureaucracy) to see Schiele’s work. Will it ensure that Shame endures as long? I think so. I hope so.