Directed by Steve McQueen (‘Hunger’ (2008)) and starring Michael Fassbender, ‘Shame’ is a bold, beautifully-shot film about a high-paid office worker in New York, Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), who suffers from sex addiction. While Brandon is able to shuffle work and (his idea of) play reasonably successfully on a daily basis, his routine starts to spin out of control, and his life priorities are tested, when his younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), decides to pay him a visit and stay for a few days in his apartment.
Like ‘Hunger’, ‘Shame’ is a film about human endurance and extreme forms of human behaviour. Essentially, it is a film about the battle of mind over body. One of the most fascinating things about this film is Brandon’s character. He seems cold, detached and emotionally void. However, it is clear that this is only the facade. There is a lot going on inside Brandon. He is self-conscious about his ‘deficiencies’; feels high levels of shame and frustration about his addiction; but, also has a genuine desire to lead a normal life (he bins his porn collection and his porn-‘infected’ computer, and tries his hand at romance and intimacy). As it is seen from the scene where Sissy performs Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’ in a bar, Brandon is capable of a real and deep emotion (no matter how hard it may be for him to show it). The problem for Brandon is that he thinks he is going to lose control (which he desperately needs and gets through the performance of sexual activities) if he decides to venture into the territory connected with something as unpredictable as human relations and emotions. When Brandon’s sister arrives to New York and ‘imposes’ herself on her brother and his lifestyle, Brandon is forced for the first time to confront his problem and to deal with it. This reminds of another movie: ‘American Psycho’ (2000), a film based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis. In ‘American Psycho’, as in ‘Shame’ here, there is this image of a middle-aged modern man who seems to have it all, but who also labours a dark secret inside, a secret he is too ashamed to admit to anyone.
The film gives a very accurate and realistic portrayal of sex addiction and the consequences of having such a disorder. As Brandon indulges in his sexual activities, he thinks he is in control. Perhaps bad things happened to Brandon when he was young, which were outside of his control, and now he takes a special delight in being in control of situations which give him immense pleasure. However, deep down, he also knows that he lacks control because he is unable to stop. Brandon’s urges reign over him. He is a man who is trapped in a circle of sexual indulgence, in the desires of his own body and in the fear of exposure. He projects outside confidence, but inside he is constantly competing for control and relief.
Another interesting character study in this movie is Brandon’s sister, Sissy. Both Brandon and Sissy seem to share the same troubled past (probably revolving around sexual and/or emotional abuse), as Sissy tells Brandon: ‘We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place’. However, their “copying” mechanisms with the past trauma are different. If Brandon is after sex and control, Sissy craves love, intimacy and emotional connection. If Brandon is capable to satisfy easily his momentary sexual urges, for Sissy it is more difficult, as in order to be completely happy she needs to have someone who loves her near her. This is why Sissy appears more ‘damaged’ than Brandon. What is also so moving in this picture is the way Brandon feels his sister’s pain, and becomes unhappy and guilty when he realises that he is incapable of giving her brotherly love she so desperately craves. Brandon knows full well the gap he created between himself and the rest of the world, especially his sister, and tries desperately to bridge it.
Strangely, the advertising banners and posters in the film’s underground scenes capture the attention. This sounds trivial, but it may not be so. For example, we see a poster on the tube, which reads: ‘Improving Non-Stop’ (no doubt referring to the underground works), when Brandon leaves the underground train after his sexual encounters. In Brandon’s context the slogan: ‘Improving Non-Stop’ can be interpreted differently, e.g. Brandon just improved his sexual technique or the slogan mockingly reminds him that he has just, yet again, succumbed to his urges rather than combated them. When Brandon first sees the red-haired woman on the train, there is also a poster near her which reads: ‘How is it possible’. It is not unlikely that this is exactly what Brandon thinks when he sees the lady stranger for the first time.
Michael Fassbender gives a brave, brilliant performance in ‘Shame’. The actor exposes himself both physically and emotionally. Fassbender’s acting is so masterful that we truly feel Brandon’s dilemma; his despair over his addiction; his frustration because he is unable to stop; and, finally, his pain over seeing his vulnerable sister so “crushed” by life. Fassbender’s facial expressions as his character watches his sister sing ‘New York, New York’ in a restaurant, speak volumes: they convey everything he feels deep inside, but is unable to express. Fassbender also makes the audience sympathise with Brandon a great deal, despite his character appearing so self-centered, selfish and unemotional most of the time. The fact that the Academy chose to ignore Fassbender’s role in ‘Shame‘, only shows how meaningless the nominations have become over the years. The only comfort is that Fassbender’s bold performance in ‘Shame’ was distinguished at the Venice Film Festival in September 2011, where Fassbender won the Best Actor award.
The main score to ‘Shame’, ‘Unravelling’, composed by Harry Escott, is so hauntingly beautiful as to rival any musical masterpieces of Hans Zimmer. ‘Unravelling’ fits the picture perfectly, reflecting Brandon’s shameful desires, growing frustration with his addiction and aspirations to lead a normal life. The music has its low and high points, taking the listener from deep depression and hopelessness reflecting Brandon’s addiction, to sporadic glimpses of hope as the character tries to battle his way through his daily dilemmas.
Given the time it took to film ‘Shame’ – less than a month, the film becomes an outstanding achievement of Steve McQueen, its director. Special attention should be drawn to the exceptional camerawork. In some scenes it is quite unusual. As the camera is sometimes absolutely still and shoots from very interesting angles, the film sometimes has an almost documentary, objective feel to it, ‘detached’ from what is going on. This way, the camera does not ‘judge’ Brandon or anyone else in a scene, but just portrays people and situations as they come.
Finally, ‘Shame’ can be compared to ‘A Dangerous Method’ (2011) directed by David Cronenberg. Arguably, if ‘Shame’ possesses all the depth and intelligence needed to portray, and deal with, such a controversial screen issue as sex, ‘A Dangerous Method’ totally lacks it. ‘Shame’s silences speak volumes, while overly talkative scenes in ‘A Dangerous Method’ hardly even constitute a ‘cure’ for the film’s many drawbacks. ‘A Dangerous Method’ never shows naked emotion, but perhaps it should. ‘Shame’ is explicit, “naked”, raw, and definitely rings the truth, unlike ‘A Dangerous Method’.
‘Shame’ is a very emotionally-charged, tragic film with a thought-provoking ending. Bold, original and absolutely beautiful to behold, ‘Shame’ is undeniably an outstanding piece of cinematography to become a cult masterpiece in no time. 10/10