Some thoughts on Shame (Significant Spoilers)

There are some significant spoilers contained within this article.  Please do not read if you haven’t seen Shame.

  • Director – Steve McQueen
  • Starring – Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
  • Writer – Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen
  • Year – 2011
  • Running Time – 101 mins

Addiction to anything can be truly terrifying.  It can produce deep and powerful feelings of enslavement, leading to an all-encompassing world of worthlessness and ultimately  self-disgust.   Addiction is also deeply personal; if it has its claws deep into you it doesn’t matter which master you serve, you just need to feed the beast.

Addicts often describe the worst part of addiction is that it still feels somehow like a personal choice.  The logic in their mind is clear; they don’t physically need what they are addicted to, as other wise why are they able to sleep?   Therefore, somehow, it must be a personal choice.  A truly terrifying situation to be in.  Mind over matter, but in reverse.

Shame is a powerful, courageous, but above all else honest portrayal of one man’s struggle with addiction.  Michael Fassbender is simply outstanding in his portrayal of Brandon Sullivan, a successful New York 30 something, who although outwardly successful, is inwardly struggling to contain, survive and hide his sexual addiction.

Right from the opening scenes we see the level of trust that Fassbender has in Director Steve McQueen.  Fassbender is naked throughout this film both physically and through his performance.  Fassbender leaves nothing on the shelf, he literally puts it all out for everyone to see.

During the opening act we are introduced to Brandon and invited into his private world of internet porn, prostitutes and work-place self-satisfaction.   It is clear that Brandon gets no real pleasure from any of this, rather simply going through the motions of what is required.  We are also shown what happens when his private world encroaches into the public sphere, with dark and potentially dangerous ramifications.

On a subway train on the way to work, Brandon catches the eye of woman opposite.  She initially returns his stare, intrigued by the attention and for a moment seems to lose herself in a fantasy.  However Brandon’s stare never leaves her and a flirtatious exchange is suddenly transformed into something dangerous and sinister.  The woman, clearly distressed, aggressively displays her wedding ring and leaves the train at the next stop.  Brandon follows, continuing his pursuit, which by now feels more like a hunt.    Thankfully the woman escapes in the crowded station, but it begs the question, barely 10 mins into the film, what would Brandon have done if he had caught her?

Brandon’s world is complicated even further by the arrival of his clearly troubled and damaged sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan).  Mulligan puts in another impressive performance, but you come away with the feeling that she has been slightly underused, however her turn as a nightclub singer is breath-taking, and her interaction with Brandon feels genuine and raw.

The dynamics between the siblings are clearly rooted in an unexplained childhood trauma, which may also be the root of Brandon’s addiction. Throughout the film Sissy needs to stay close to Brandon, whilst he seems determined to keep her at arms length.  In one poignant scene, Sissy states, “if I left, you would never contact me again, don’t you find that sad?” Brandon clearly doesn’t as he is just trying to survive and it is only towards the end of the film that he realises the importance of this statement.

Sissy also appears to have some level of understanding of Brandon’s problem.  Even so, she still climbs uninvited into his bed claiming she was cold on the couch.    Brandon screams at her to get out, so again begging the question how much self-control does Brandon have?

Like any addict, all Brandon wants is normality.  A late night attempt to clean the decks by throwing out all pornographic material from his house (he uses an impressive number of bin bags), will be familiar to all who have decided at 11pm to stop smoking the next day.

However the most heart-breaking display of his search for normality is his interaction with co-worker Marianne (Nicole Behaire).  Early in the film we see Brandon fantasying about Marianne, but in what appears to be an emotional rather than a sexual way. Brandon attempts a normal courtship and what follows is a powerful set of scenes, which truly highlight the depths of Brandon’s addiction.

The first date dinner is a key moment in the film and shot in what appears to be one take.  Brandon, initially flustered at the social scene, is painfully honest in a response to a question from Marianne, spelling out why he doesn’t want to get married.  Brandon is not deliberately being mean here, he is simply trying to be honest.  He just doesn’t see it as ‘realistic’. During the conversation the camera lingers on Marianne and we see her initially intrigued by his honesty, then angered by it, before it appears, simply accepting it.

As the dinner continues, Brandon is calmer and the two relax into each other’s company. A shot from outside the restaurant portrays the couple as one of many out for dinner that evening.  And in fact they are, and as the two stroll to the subway post dessert, they exchange some fun first date banter and for a brief moment Brandon seems temporarily free from his demons, purely enjoying the company of Marianne.  He is in fact functioning like everyone else.  He wants more, which is typified by his final statement of the evening of simply  “we should do this again?”

Further in the film we see Brandon kissing Marianne at work before taking her to an expensive hotel.  The two begin to undress, caught up in the moment when suddenly Brandon pulls away and we realise that he is unable to function physically.  Watching Brandon fail physically with Marianne is heartbreaking.  Here is a moment when Brandon actually wants to have sex, rather than simply needing to.  Watching him break down with despair is a hard watch, if you’ll excuse the pun.   Again, mind over matter but in reverse.

What follows in the third act is Brandon’s further descent into chaos.  McQueen brutally shows us how far Brandon will go to get his fix.  Parts of this feel slightly too far, and one particular scene could be read as quite offensive to certain sections of society.

However, the third act needs to be this brutal so we can fully understand the depths that Brandon will sink to.  In one iconic scene we see Brandon engaged in a threesome with two prostitutes.  The camera closes up on Brandon features and the comparison with a heroin addict is clear.  Even at the moment of relief, Brandon does not appear to feel any.

In a scene towards the end of film, Brandon returns to the docks, breaks down and stares out to sea.  We are told earlier in the film that Brandon and Sissy moved to New York from Ireland in their teens, was this Brandon looking back to his past home for answers? The final reel offers some level of hope for Brandon and indeed Sissy, who have both been through their own separate hell.  Brandon at least appears to have turned a corner, and Sissy now has Brandon where she wants him, close by.   But as with all addictions, you can one take things one day at a time.

I cannot recommend Shame highly enough, it is a shattering experience at times, but one that is truly worth going through. Yes it is a tough watch but there are also a number of lighter moments and even the occasional bit of humour.  It is a film that I have watched a number of times and still find myself pondering aspects of it several weeks on.

This is Fassbenders’ high water mark so far in his career and another impressive feature by McQueen.  I haven’t seen McQueen previous feature Hunger, but if it is half the quality of Shame then I am keen to check it out asap.  McQueen, Fassbender and Mulligan were all nominated for a slew of critics and independent film awards last year, all well deserved.  This was never a film to win an Oscar, due to the subject material, but Fassbender’s performance is one of the most of iconic of 2012.

Highly recommended


Review by Will Malone
If you liked Shame, then try Prometheus

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