Steve McQueen | 1hr 41min
The silence of Shame is suffocating, but it is also where New York-dwelling business executive Brandon is most comfortable. This isn’t saying much given his constant psychological torment, but the absence of open communication is the protective barrier upon which the division between his sex addiction and respectable public image precariously rests. Unlike the two clearest influences upon Steve McQueen’s work, Taxi Driver and American Psycho, there is no voiceover here letting us in on the feelings of our disturbed antihero. But just like Brandon’s associates and family, we too find ourselves cut off from his innermost thoughts.
Fortunately, Michael Fassbender is here to deliver the greatest performance of his career, physically spilling out his emotions in fluctuations between stiff, reticent mannerisms and hunched-over, bestial deviancy. When Brandon’s sister, Sissy, comes to stay, that separation between the two begins to strain, as in her he finds his opposite – a woman who might be as troubled as him, and yet lets her messy feelings and sexuality run free in the open. To him it is a demonstration of immaturity, and so he takes it on himself to care for her, but she also reflects back at him that which he finds so excruciating to face. Tortured by the loud, uninhibited sexual moans coming from her bedroom, he takes off running down the streets of New York, as if trying to escape his mortifying addiction. And for two full minutes, McQueen tracks his camera parallel to Brandon’s motion, never letting him get away.
Through the subway stations, clubs, and offices of America’s most populous city, McQueen is constantly framing Brandon as an isolated individual, who wears his stiff coat and thick scarf like armour. Within the vertical lines of New York’s high-rises and the reflective surfaces of New York’s bleak architecture, Brandon finds nothing but himself and his own mirror image. Just as the city is washed out in cold, blue hues, so too is his apartment, with everything from his bedsheets to its lighting consuming him in an oppressive frigidity, pushing inwards on his untamed, primal urges.
Meanwhile at work, frequent mentions of a rampant computer virus that stemmed from his sizeable digital pornography collection implicitly associates his addiction with a malignant infection, slowly spreading through his body. As if to purge himself of his sickness, he keeps returning to the same orgasmic release, and yet in a self-perpetuating circle of misery, that release also feeds his addiction. While this routine allows him to live in an uneasy truce with his own compulsion, it cannot stand the slightest interference from others. His detachment from the rest of the world isn’t just a side effect of his addiction, but a form of self-protection.
While the long take is one of McQueen’s most powerful devices as a filmmaker which he uses across many of his scenes, he also finds an organic flow to Brandon’s struggle through a reverie of montages and stretches of silent interactions. This is the state in which he moves through life, absorbed in his own fantasies and shame. The first time we find him in one of these trances, which dominates the opening nine minutes of the film, he only snaps out of it when he perceives a cutting judgement as being directed towards him, briefly fearing that his two lives have finally crossed.
“I find you disgusting. I find you inconsolable. I find you invasive… This is what the cynics used to say.”
Later in the film, we find Brandon riding a subway at night looking beaten and scarred, and in a flashback to earlier that evening we intercut between his movements through New York streets, his attempt to seduce another man’s girlfriend, and a last-ditch attempt to taste physical pleasure in a gay bar. The pounding dance music of these locations clash with the classical strings of the score, pulling us between both his mind and his body, until he finally submits to his carnal desires in an orgy. Captured in a montage consisting entirely of close-ups, the strings continue to swell as naked bodies writhe in the glowing golden light, while in the background Sissy’s voicemail desperately begs for his help. Ignoring her efforts, he keeps moving to his own gyrating and thrusting rhythms, and then just as he reaches climax we hang on his face, only to find it twisted in a pained grimace.
Up until now, we have assumed that his shame has only weighed heavy on him before and after the act, but as we come to realise in this moment, the feeling is inescapable. Perhaps then sex doesn’t just serve as an act of self-gratification, but also self-punishment for craving the very thing he abhors. Pleasure and pain are thereby woven into a single paradox that underlies McQueen’s character study of a man caught in wretched cycle, illustrated especially well in the silent, virtually identical bookends of his arousement at the prospect of seducing another man’s wife. Though the final scene cuts off early when we see this take place, it isn’t hard to imagine what might happen next. All you would have to do is replay the film.
Shame is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.