Artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen makes gorgeous films about dirty subjects. His 2011 feature Shame pumps an erotic and visceral heartbeat into the cold exterior of New York City’s accessible culture. The voice that exists within Shame – the unsaid – is as powerful as McQueen’s sleek composition and stylish framing. The film resolves to blur the line between actual ecstasy and inner agony, through main character Brandon (Michael Fassbender) as he struggles with his need for carnal lust within the absence of intimacy.
Brandon is a detached character. The undercurrent to his sterile lifestyle is obscene urge and sexual compulsion. Within minutes of the film, the obsessively structured habits of the austere businessman are set up to include the daily cycle of work, masturbation, pornography, and sex. In Brandon, McQueen has crafted a character whose existence, although dominated by the most passionate of subjects, is flat and lacking the moral compass to find his way through “right” and “wrong” behaviors. There are no consequences to Brandon’s hyper-sexualized actions. He watches porn at work, he has sex in alleys, and recesses from his desk to the public washroom for a daily session of masturbation. Although at first he is able to function publicly, his secret fetishes are at the forefront of his existence. Single and living alone, there is no one in Brandon’s insular world able to judge his private perversions.
The introduction of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligian) who unexpectedly becomes his unwanted houseguest with a TBD departure date interrupts his sterile world of work, masturbation, pornography, and sex. Brandon’s dirty private life becomes exposed to the last person on earth who should witness your vulgar side – your family. Basic psychology dictates that the feeling of shame surfaces through the guilt of knowing that you’ve acted in violation of your own internal law. The mere presence of Sissy within Brandon’s daily life unearths his suppressed inner law and becomes the catalyst for him to experience shame. As Sissy squeezes Brandon’s private compulsions into public light his inner battle becomes a weight too heavy to bare, leading to a reckless rampage that transitions him to a predator of sort.
Although present throughout the film by way of dialogue between Brandon and the female characters, the delineation between his propensity for the impersonal over the intimate comes through McQueen’s choice in shot composition of two explicit sex scenes. The filmmaker pulls the camera away from the romantic love scene, representing the disconnection Brandon feels when encountered with intimate feelings. Here, the setting is a cold modern hotel room, bathed in blue hued natural light, and framed from a distance in a long take. The more ravishing sex scene, an inter-racial threesome, representing the impersonal connection of prostitution, is warm, fragmented and shot in close range. Visions of the salacious and obscene are assembled in an alluring montage. McQueen’s choice of framing for the “dirty” scene tells us that it is here, within shame, where Brandon feels most protected. Set to a soundtrack that mirrors his climactic moments, the sequence culminates in a soft focus close up of Michael Fassbender’s face. He is looking directly at the camera, yet it is difficult to tell if he is experiencing pain or pleasure, as he is an enemy to both.
Shame is a progressive film, which seeks to loosen the boundaries of material usually presented in standard wide release films, yet the NC-17 rating seems exaggerated. We live in a world where pornography is no longer taboo. The fact that Brandon engages in this behavior is not shocking, yet what is interesting is the choice to leave Brandon simmering and unchanged. That, is realistic, disturbing and most provocative.