Steve McQueen’s ‘Shame': Real Sex in the City
The question of addiction has become a ubiquitous reference in a Western cultural context. Our human reading of it, however, is often skewed by society and the media. Equally, sex as a commodity, a brand and a socially-simplified process is so endlessly discussed and idealized that one might be forgiven for rolling one’s eyes at the idea of a film dealing with sex addiction. Steve McQueen’s latest film, Shame, achieves something remarkable, however. McQueen directs with a freshness, depth, insight, poignancy, and balance that keeps his film from being railroaded into a restrictive official narrative.
The opening scenes of the film reveal Brandon, the central character, (played by Michael Fassbender, and yes, all of him is revealed) with swift cinematic dexterity. He lives in Manhattan in a sparsely decorated, functional apartment. He sleeps with hookers. He ignores the emotional feminine pleas to pick up the ‘phone that regularly blurt out of his answering machine. He is conventionally attractive, and dresses well (when he has his clothes on) and works in a sleek, generic office. If the hookers – and his impassive disregard for the woman on his answering machine – have already aroused suspicion that Brandon has some issues, then the brilliantly-shot and -acted scene of his subway ride to work provides confirmation. This scene resonates powerfully. No words are spoken; the rhythmic click clacking of the train and a sparse string score slowly build towards a tense, throbbing sound wall. It allows us to do the visual equivalent of eavesdropping on the conversational eye-contact between Brandon and an attractive female stranger, as he seduces her with the mere idea of a casual tryst. When she leaves the train, having first revealed her engagement ring, he makes chase but she loses her nerve and flees into the crowd. As he dejectedly begins to return to the platform to wait for the next train, Brandon changes from a powerful man, brimming with sexual energy – a hunter on the prowl – into a frustrated, shame-ridden shell of the self he was but minutes before. This is the cycle of his addiction to sex, which we see played out again and again in the film. The shame he feels does not come from the embarrassment of failure to complete a seduction (most of his seductions do indeed come to fruition), but from having allowed his sexual urges to control his actions. As the film progresses, we see more clearly how his actions, when thus controlled by desire, work so thoroughly to his detriment. Brandon exhibits all the outward signs of control; a fastidiously ordered apartment, a careful attention to the detail of his dress, a carefully casual but not familiar relationship with his colleagues, a confident, witty and engaging manner. But beneath the surface he is dark and spiralling towards self-destruction.
Brandon’s deliberately solitary life of porn, masturbating and occasionally paying for sex is crashed into by his deeply unstable sister, Sissy (hers was the voice on the answering machine). She is in the middle of some sort of emotional crisis, and is also trying to make it as a singer. McQueen literally exposes her to us, when Brandon comes home to find her in his shower. She is naked, but not sexy; she is brightly lit, wet and bedraggled and overwhelmingly vulnerable. We notice first the ways in which she is very different to Brandon; while he is ordered, she is messy; he is controlled, she is impulsive; he is reserved, she is bubbly; he implodes, she explodes; he shuns true affection, she desperately seeks it. But as further scenes between them unfold, what they share also becomes apparent; they are both wrangling with some deep-seated psychological problems that seem to stem from a time in their early lives. “We are not bad people, we just come from a bad place,” Sissy reminds Brandon in an extremely highly-wrought answer machine message (this time one he cannot ignore) at the climax of the film. Through this dysfunctional, alienated dynamic, McQueen lucidly charts the mounting tension between them, and its overspill into their individual lives as each of them hurtles towards catastrophe.
McQueen tends to use long fluid shots and unflinching close-ups for emotional scenes, giving us time and opportunity to examine facial expressions and sense emotion. When Sissy is fucking Brandon’s sleazy boss in his bedroom, for example, McQueen trains the camera on Brandon as he paces the room, breathing hard through the nose. His rage, as he begins to yank his clothes off, almost pulsates through the screen. We nervously wonder what he is going to do and imagine all kinds of nasty scenarios. But he leaves the apartment and goes for a run through midnight Manhattan, filmed in a single shot which allows the spectator to breathe a sigh of relief. Equally, as Sissy sings her rendition of New York, New York in a jazz bar, the camera zooms in almost uncomfortably closely. As we listen to her inconsolably sad voice, and watch the lost expression on her face, it is as if McQueen has managed to reveal an elusive essence of this character. We can sense her neediness, feel that there can be no happy end for her. As the film progresses, running no longer provides adequate relief from the anger and tension that builds up in Brandon, either, and he is driven to a reckless and desperate night of ill-gotten orgasms. In these scenes, the camera is jumpy and jerky, constantly changing its focus, and the scenes are shot out of chronological order. Here McQueen underlines a frenzied lack of emotion, as Brandon seeks to obliterate all feelings except the sexual. And yet, as the siblings fall into their individual abysses with an extra push, each from the other, there is some tenderness left, some vestige of sibling feeling. Will there be a way out of hell, some kind of redemption, for either or both of them? Here, McQueen leaves us hanging, and that feels just right.
The other significant emotional relationship in the film is between Brandon and a sexy colleague Marianne (played by Nicole Beharie). They start by flirting in the office, and then meet in a restaurant for dinner. Again, McQueen keeps the camera close and stationary as the dinner time conversation unfolds. They are both at first awkward, and we feel awkward too (and also rather amused) watching their over-attentive waiter bumbling into their fledgling attempts at conversation at all the wrong moments. When finally they are given the space to really talk, we gain insight into Brandon’s world; he does not want love, does not believe in relationships. And yet he can be charming, playful, sweet even. The pregnant shot of him and Marianne as they say their goodbyes at the entrance to the subway with a self-conscious hug, but no kiss, no seduction, speaks of the tension Brandon feels between desire and emotional attachment. This is dramatically underlined by the following scenes in which Brandon (after some evident soul searching about it) pins Marianne to a wall at the office and persuades her to join him for a lunchtime assignation in a hotel. What follows is perhaps the sexiest sex scene in this movie full of sex, tender as well as passionate, but it comes to an abrupt, embarrassing end when Brandon suddenly pulls on the brakes and dismisses her coldly, without explanation. He then calls her a whore and fucks her hard against the window. Sex is not a way for Brandon to connect with anyone, he is incapable of connecting in this way. Instead, his kind of sex, the kind he is addicted to, is a method of escape, and every hit succeeds in alienating him further from the rest of the world. Brandon seeks to live in isolation, sealed off from reality. This is his way of not having to deal with his addiction. Sissy’s arrival, and the warm feelings he begins to develop for Marianne, force him to confront his problem and he is therefore pushed to lose control of his ordered, regulated, but fucked-up life.
The backdrop to these incredibly human dramas is New York, and the city almost takes on a role as a character in its own right. McQueen certainly doesn’t glamourise the city. His outdoor scenes mainly take place at night, or in the rain, with a colour palette made up of cold, metallic greys, greens and blues. But many of the most memorable and most emotional scenes take place in the city’s streets, overlooked by skyscrapers, or abandoned to its empty, wind-swept riverbank. Ultimately, the city is painted in intensely lonely hues. When we see other people on the streets they are pointedly distanced; we see them through restaurant windows, happily conversing with friends, or they wear vacant expressions as they ride the subway, intent on not seeing what goes on around them. The city scenes showcase an unfriendly, isolated and harsh reality, particularly as Brandon reaches his ultimate low, sitting on the wet street, alone, next to the Hudson. And yet there is an undeniable sad beauty to these scenes too. This relationship between the city, loneliness and beauty is also underscored by Sissy’s version of New York, New York; the classic hymn to the city that never sleeps is turned into a cry of longing to the city that doesn’t give a shit, but whose beauty brings a tear to the eye.
So why Shame as the title of this film? We certainly identify the emotion as Brandon’s almost constant companion. We notice as he hangs his head, and we are forced to contemplate the cause of his feeling. It suggests a creeping doom particular to addicts, as they go through a cycle of craving, indulging and stinging regret. But never do we get the sense that any blame should be aportioned, and that is one of the film’s key strengths, alongside the powerful and brave performances by Fassbender and Mulligan. McQueen manages to maintain an objective gaze, despite the camera’s intimacy, and avoids making moral judgements. The film, therefore, escapes the trap of becoming issue-led. Instead, the film is rooted in a personal drama, in human relationships and thereby gives us all something to identify with in Brandon, Sissy, or their relationship. By being first and foremost a narrative, it also avoids a second potential trap, of seeking to provoke and shock without the substance to justify it. Yes, there is sex aplenty, and some of it is more revealing than we often see on screen, but it never feels gratuitous and somehow manages to be stylishly shot without being overly glamorous or titillating. Overall, the film provokes thought rather than knee-jerk reaction; it is a hard-bitten triumph.
Katy Karpfinger is NLP’s chief film critic. She is currently based in Stavanger, Norway.