There’s no doubt that Shame is a beautiful film. There’s no doubt that Shame is a cruel film, as well. Cruel to its viewers, in its uncensored honesty, and cruel to its characters as well. Those who have watched Steve McQueen’s first major film, Hunger, will probably know what I’m talking about. His films are both emotionally draining, honest and, at times, lyrical in their cruelty. His work definitely has parts that most will have to ‘cope with’ rather than be allowed to enjoy. And whether one likes it depends on whether one has the energy to withstand it.
Shame is about Brandon, portrayed incredibly honestly by Michael Fassbender, a quite well-off yuppie of the noughties, who is a sex maniac. Brandon has sex whenever he can, preferably with prostitutes and call girls, masturbates and thinks of sex constantly. The very first scene, when Brandon is introduced, having sex, also lets us in on the fact that Brandon is avoiding a part of his life, shutting someone out. At first we’re not sure if it’s a girlfriend or a friend, but she seems to, once, have been close to him. It also becomes clear that he’s made a habit out of avoiding her, as he doesn’t seem to really flinch when he hears the message in his machine, her asking over and over again to pick up. At the same time, he’s more than just annoyed. He’s disturbed.
At first, Brandon’s relationship with sex seems more like a game. You assume he doesn’t like intimacy, has commitment issues and loves the hunt. He pursues women more persistently than expected, but he is a handsome man who gets attention, so you get the sense that his obsession derives from the fact that he can actually get it pretty easily. That’s just the way he works. And then, he comes home one day and a woman is in his shower. He walks in with a bat because he’s sensed an intruder. He relaxes when he realizes it’s someone he knows. She tells him he scared her, barging in like that. She’s in the middle of having a shower, he stands opposite her, they look at each other, talking. She’s naked. Her voice lets you know she’s the ‘answering machine’ girl. It seems as though they might have been lovers once upon a time, and she has a hard time letting go.
Or, she’s his sister, as is the case. That very first encounter helps define their relationship as different and strange. From the moment Sissy, Carey Mulligan’s character, appears, Brandon’s carefully preserved private life starts to go off the rails. Opposite to what one might expect, it’s Sissy’s mere presence that upsets Brandon’s whole existence and not so much her actions, even though they don’t help either. Sissy is needy, desperate for affection, always wanting to feel wanted and admired. She comes off as quite overbearing but Brandon overreacts every time she reaches out for affection. And that rejection makes her latch on to him, or anyone, even more. This is a seriously co-dependent relationship, as the more Brandon gets upset, the more obvious it becomes that sex is not so much an act of enjoyment, or even release, for him but more an act of self-punishment. And the more he gets upset, the more Sissy tries to hold on, tries to get close to him, both emotionally and physically. By the end of the film, Sissy has spent most of her time trying to attract attention in order to feel better, and Brandon gets more aggressive, violent and sex-craving every time his sister cries out for help.
There is definitely the insinuation that some sort of incest has taken place and you’re almost certain that both of them have been emotionally or/and sexually abused by someone close to them. And that’s how the film explains their respective behaviors as adults. Brandon becomes a sex addict, able to let his true pain show through orgasm, feeling guilty about every sexual act he takes part in and, still, seeking that guilt. Sissy has a history of harming herself and tries to compensate by having others show her the affection she should have had as a child and the care she should provide herself with. And that’s where the film gets a bit stereotypical, as far as I’m concerned. There’s no doubt that some people do react that way in situations of domestic abuse, violence and sexual harassment. But that image of the woman who has been abused and, as a result, becomes weak, helpless, depressed and eager to sleep with everyone who will have her has been around for a very long time. Not all women, I imagine, react like this and I would love to see a different side to that story. The same goes for the man who feels he has to screw everything that walks by in some sort of self-punishing ritual. Perhaps he feels guilty, as the elder brother, that he couldn’t stop whatever it is that they had done to them as kids. Perhaps sex has been to him, from a young age, an act brought on by, as well as causing, guilt. In any case, it has something to do with his sister. And he, the man, gets upset and goes out to have some more sex while she shrinks and gives up. At least she lets him have it about how awful his life is before she retreats to the needy, clingy, attention-seeking person she is.
Yes, their situation is not a good one to be in, their relationship is not a relationship two siblings, or people, can handle and the way the film treats the characters can, sometimes, be a bit clichéd. However, there’s another side to Shame that’s really interesting. And that’s how it combines these incredibly miserable situations with very beautiful, formally, shots and artful cinematography. Lyrical music scores the most horrible of scenes, both for the characters and for the audience in a film where form is subverted by meaning constantly. Brandon’s life, physique, apartment, clothes and smile can fool you that he’s living the American dream. Sissy sings ‘New York, New York’ in one of the most moving and haunting scenes of the film, with a mesmerizing delivery by Carey Mulligan herself, it seems. This is a song about ‘making it anywhere’ but, here, it’s turned into a nostalgic tune about dreams that never came true.
Ultimately, Shame offers a critique of what the American dream can conceal under its attractive veneer and how middle-class America has succeeded in having nothing as it has eliminated all meaningful human contact. And while the tiniest glimmer of hope appears at the last minute, we’re unsure if it’s going to be enough. Can you handle it? I have to be honest. As thought-provoking an experience it was, I wasn’t able to quite handle it.