Shortly into Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011), we watch Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a thirty-something, financially-successful New Yorker, stare down a woman sitting across from him. The woman returns his gaze and begins to silently flirt with him. She briefly loses control, biting her lower lip as her hands slip into her lap, before coming to her senses. Her face is one of an ecstasy driven by a carnal desire. His visage remains cold and distant. The scene perfectly encapsulates the theme of the film: Brandon is unable to feel anything towards anyone. He attempts to seduce the woman not because he is attracted to her but because the only time he can feel any pleasure is during the brief temporal window of ejaculation. The partner is irrelevant.
Nor does his family mean anything to him. Brandon avoids the nagging phone calls of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) through a daily routine where he emerges naked from bed, deletes Sissy’s phone message, flips on the shower, and viciously masturbates. McQueen underlines the routine with a camera set-up: the same pan analyzes the impersonal space of Brandon’s apartment each time. If Brandon were to pick up the phone and allow Sissy into his life, the facade he has constructed would be torn down.
Sissy, however, refuses to be discarded. One evening, she uses a spare key to access his apartment. She’s visiting New York and has a few gigs as a cabaret singer. Brandon reluctantly lets her in and gives her a couple ground rules: “Stay out of my room… You’re gone when I leave in the morning.” Brandon’s routine is further interrupted when he and his boss, David (James Badge Dale), go to see Sissy perform. She sings “New York, New York,” moving Brandon to tears – which he attempts to quickly wipe away – and David to her bed. Soon after, Brandon recognizes his affliction and attempts to go out on a date with a lovely co-worker (Nicole Beharie). Yet, when he gets her into the bedroom, he finds he is unable to perform. She has become too close to him, making her an invalid choice as a partner.
McQueen’s film is distant and clinical and it has been getting a great deal of criticism for this approach. I realize it may be tempting to think that a film about sex will be aesthetically titillating, yet we cannot forget that Shame is only tangentially about sex and primarily about addiction. McQueen, like Michelangelo Antonioni before him, utilizes film form to realize that alienating lifestyle for us with the aforementioned camera pans and, thanks to some incredible work by director of photography Sean Bobbitt, through visual composition. Scenes are staged behind the actors, underlining Brandon’s impersonal point-of-view. Similarly, Bobbitt re-focuses a composition so that a conversation goes out of focus and a woman comes into focus. Of course, this style cannot work alone and Fassbender provides a haunted facial performance that attempts to hide all emotion…only to imply so much more. The weakness of the film is not the style or tone but how little McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan explore the space beyond Brandon’s addiction, a reoccurring problem in the sub-genre. How is he capable of holding down a job if he is completely incapable of focusing on anything aside from sex? We can see Brandon’s symptoms but we are never given the chance to understand the cause.