From the archive
Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011) opens with an image of a body sprawled across a bed. The muscular male torso slashes across the wide frame horizontally with ripples of ocean blue coloured bed sheets rolling off the edges. A clock ticks-tocks in the background, the sound hanging in the air – a threatening presence. His face is pale and hollowed out, his eyes still but directed at nothing. Suddenly, he jumps from the bed toward the window, ripping open the shades to let the morning sunlight cleanse his naked body. This process of waking up and starting anew, letting the light wash over him, is enacted like a carefully performed ritual. Moments later, more routine: a call-girl comes to the door, counts the money he leaves on the table, moves toward the bedroom; every action is extremely rigid and cold, their banter a script they’ve over rehearsed. Not long after she leaves, he will jerk off in the shower just for the hell of it. This is Brandon. He is a sex addict.
A modern story set amid the high-rise reflections and blinking lights of midtown Manhattan, Shame can be looked at as a companion piece to McQueen’s previous feature, Hunger (2008). (The opening shot of Shame is eerily reminiscent of the starved IRA prisoner Bobby Sands, nearing the end of his hunger strike.) Both films are first-person physical examinations of the uses and misuses of the body, how it can offer freedom and imprisonment in equal measure. Brandon is held captive by his own desire: a handsome, well paid, single man in a big city, he’s more comfortable alone in his kitchen eating left-over takeout and cruising for Internet porn than at a singles bar. Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of Brandon is quiet and contemplative; he’s a man living in his own head, distanced from the world surrounding him. He’s not a predator or creep, but rather shy and quietly charming. It’s only when Sissy, Brandon’s sister played by Carey Mulligan, arrives in town that he begins to act out in strange and often violent ways.
Sissy is a penniless lounge singer, frayed at the edges, looking to crash at her brother’s pad for an undetermined amount of time. Her repeated voice messages provide the staccato soundtrack for the early moments of the film, letting them go unanswered becoming part of Brandon’s daily routine. When Brandon enters his apartment one night to find her in the shower, the high-end stereo blasting ‘I Want Your Love’ (1978) by Chic at an ear-shattering volume, he thinks she’s an intruder and reaches for his Louisville Slugger.
Using a song with that title is a sly joke on McQueen’s part, but the soundtrack also illuminates a crucial conflict between the two siblings: Brandon is associated with classical music while Sissy is linked to music of the nightlife, namely disco and lounge standards. Just the tempo of their respective musical choices speaks volumes: Sissy is compulsively forward and needy, energetic and outgoing; Brandon is collected and austere like the sparse Glenn Gould pieces used throughout the film. One represents control and order, the other chaos and exuberance.
Visual space is also an important component here, externalizing the internal conflicts of the characters: the long narrow avenues and clear-eyed views of the Hudson River offer abandon and escape; the sharp lines and reflective services inflict isolation and despair. Brandon’s office, a modernist nightmare of glass dividing walls, is too revealing – he needs to retreat into the closed-off bathroom stalls to masturbate frequently. Later in the film, during a beautifully crafted scene in a restaurant, the sight of a date with a co-worker, shot in one unbroken take, the camera hangs back to observe from afar. Brandon, already resistant to this kind of intimacy, continues to be interrupted by the waiter, offering his suggestions on the wine featured in the menu. McQueen keeps his camera static, letting people walk in and out of the frame in front of the subjects, adding another layer of disruption to an already awkward scene. The entire restaurant seems to be closing in on Brandon. It’s not until he is outside and closer to a possible sexual encounter that he feels safe again and ready to open himself up, if only ever so slightly.
One step forward and two steps back. The final, shocking, thrust of the film sees Brandon, unable to suppress his physical compulsions, retreating deeper into the fantasy world he has constructed. Driven by desire and shame, he literally tries to fuck the pain away. The film ends with a cyclical twist, a tragic cut to black, the bleak outcome left dangling. Will Brandon change? Or will he find greater depths to plunge into, better ways to distance himself from human connection?