There’s much to enjoy during Shame, Steve McQueen’s compelling and relentlessly cold study of sex addiction and dysfunctional family relationships, but a few scattered scenes truly stood out for me in this film, one which perhaps confirms McQueen’s place among the most exciting new directors working today.
The first of these appears early on; Brandon, the main protagonist (played to deserved acclaim by Michael Fassbender), flirts with a female commuter on a New York subway train. As the scene plays out we realize that she is interested in nothing more than a vaguely-risky illicit frisson confined to the train, whereas Brandon’s intense, unflinching stare is our first hint at levels of need and desperation that are explored further as the film progresses. While she appears to be amusing herself to alleviate boredom, Brandon’s tunnel vision tells us his mindset is wildly different and much darker. His gaze remains steely throughout, locked and feral, and it’s already uncomfortable viewing even before he alights at the same station as the female commuter and pursues her unsuccessfully up the stairs. There’s no dialogue, just the noise of the rattling train and a series of looks and shifts in body language. It’s a gripping scene, replayed cleverly with a slight twist and a degree of ambiguity at the end of the film. As one astute person commented on the Guardian’s website: “The character Brandon, like many addicts, was more likely on an infinite, hellish loop than a downward spiral. The film essentially ends where it began with Brandon.”
See, throughout Shame, Brandon’s expressions tell us as much as anything he actually says out loud. An innocent stare at attractive colleague Marianne (Nicole Beharie) would probably feel fairly normal in a different context, but here it is one of the few looks on Brandon’s face that doesn’t seem to be shot through with numbness; it’s a world away from the detatched expression he sports while watching porn on the web.
Later on in the film, with his addiction to sex seemingly spiralling out of control, Brandon is in danger of losing both his job and any semblance of a relationship with his family, represented here in the form of troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, accent darting around once or twice but very good nevertheless); during a magnificent extended sequence spanning one night we see him unwisely chatting up a woman in a bar in full view of her boyfriend, which leads him to the wrong end of a short beating that would have been milked and made far more brutal for dramatic effect in many other scripts (kudos to McQueen for underplaying this – it felt right). He then stumbles through New York’s underbelly into a seedy encounter in a gay club and, eventually, a threesome with a couple of women who must, presumably, be in his full-to-bursting little black book of prostitutes. The sequence isn’t chronologically straightforward, jumping back and forth from one point of the night to the next, and it is a mesmerising and well-edited piece of filmmaking, allowing us to piece the evening together little by little.
During the climax of that evening’s orgy, the camera is trained unflinchingly on Brandon’s face, with Fassbender displaying a deeply unsettling mixture of ecstasy, effort and pain as he has an orgasm. Brandon is temporarily sated yet again, but his face betrays what we viewers already know: this is a man who will never be truly happy unless he can be helped by the treatment of professionals. It’s the most memorable and gripping sex scene I’ve seen in a film for a long, long time: Brandon’s part in it seems to be devoid of love, of tenderness, of warmth, all sucked from his life thanks to his debilitating, paralysing need.
Shortly thereafter, near the end, there’s a third scene that has really stayed with me since I watched the film. Brandon’s life seems to be at a low ebb, choked by his own unsustainable desire and the pressure of keeping Sissy – and his long-standing family issues – at a distance. He is a shell, looks wrecked, and finally he breaks down as he stares across the Hudson River (presumably surveying New Jersey over the water). The lens is positioned between the river and Brandon, looking inland, and is trained once again without respite on Brandon’s face. As he glances from side to side it’s incredibly uncomfortable viewing. He eventually collapses, weeping, but not before one last look that breaks the fourth wall, staring directly into the camera as if the cinema audience is his last resort, the final place he can possibly look to for help. It lasts just long enough; a startling depiction of a man at breaking point. McQueen and his team seemingly made some great decisions while filming Shame, and I can’t think of a better example than the way this scene is handled.
I say “presumably surveying New Jersey” above as that’s where Brandon and Sissy grew up following a family move from Ireland, and the inference throughout is that home life is the root of all of this dysfunction, though specific incidents aren’t discussed. Additionally a recurring theme is characters having sex against windows. When Brandon tries and fails to have sex with Marianne in a hotel room, and then later has sex with a prostitute, my guess is the hotel room window is supposed to be facing out to Jersey City. (Briefly, a bit more regarding Brandon and Sissy: both awkwardly walk in on each other at different points. First Brandon walks in on Sissy when she is naked (in the shower) and secondly Sissy interrupts Brandon while he is online (masturbating, naturally). Brandon and Sissy’s intense interactions inside the apartment are also uncomfortably close; too close for a normal brother and sister relationship. I might be reading too much into it though. You could make arguments for and against the script hinting at incest; it certainly hints at abusive childhoods.)
It’s the look on Brandon’s face that drives Shame. Rarely these days do we learn so much about a character in so subtle a way, and it is to Fassbender’s credit how well this is done at various key points.
Brandon’s only way of communicating comfortably in the film is through sex. He is seemingly most at ease in the middle of it or when he’s searching for it, and aside from workplace meetings he remains awkward at other times (turning quickly to anger when conversing at home with Sissy, silence in response to accusations at work by his boss Dave (James Badge Dale) regarding the amount of porn on his laptop, and tongue-tied on a first date with Marianne, the only woman in the film that he genuinely seems to like, as opposed to the more functional take he apparently has toward others).
Shame is shot beautifully throughout. Its long takes linger uncomfortably, as opposed to expansive travels around elaborate sets that celebrate New York’s New Yorkness. Instead the camera seems to hang around just long enough to force home a sense of unease. The scenes feel claustrophobic and much of the film occurs indoors; Brandon’s poky apartment and his (unspecified) place of work are all decorated in a minimalist fashion, reflecting his apparent indifference to anything other than sex. It’s a life containing absolutely nothing other than the act of intercourse, played out in a world of toilet cubicles, crowded subway cars, dark alleyways, bars and restaurants. In the few scenes that are actually outdoors the camera sticks resolutely to street level. There is no escape from this New York. A lot of the action takes place at night, too, and any scenes set during the day show a city drained under rain and cloudy grey skies, in keeping with the film’s muted palette. There’s no colour in Brandon’s face, and no colour in Brandon’s New York.
Shame is a very, very good film. It tackles a subject that has largely been ignored by the film industry without ever having the arrogance to suggest a way out for its chief protagonist or an easy solution to his suffering. As such it is relentlessly downbeat and, thankfully, as serious as it ought to be. Marianne represents the only ray of hope for the lead character, and at one point we see him dispose of a collection of porn mags, DVDs and sex toys, but McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan are too savvy to wander down any audience-pleasing paths. Hope is fleetingly shown and dashed even quicker. There’s little respite here and no redemption, but at the core of the story are two fascinating sibling characters that engage us despite the lack of any comfy story arc. The glimpse we have of this painful life has brought fine work yet again out of Fassbender and McQueen, who paired up on the director’s debut Hunger, as well as Carey Mulligan, who looks to be going from strength to strength.
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale
Running Time: 101 Minutes