Film Analysis: Shame (2011)


Film: Shame
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
Release Date: 10/07/11 (festivals) / 04/17/12 (DVD/Blu)
Studio: Film4 / Fox Searchlight
Tagline: n/a
Plot: “In New York City, Brandon’s carefully cultivated private life — which allows him to indulge his sexual addiction — is disrupted when his sister arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay.” (Source: IMDB)

(Author’s note: This analysis may contain spoilers. Also, Shame is under consideration for placement in my Top Ten List.)

If we are to discuss Shame, the herculean second collaboration from actor Michael Fassbender and director Steve McQueen, let’s first discard the preconceived notion that the film’s core only revolves around a troubled everyman named Brandon, played by Fassbender. Sure, the infamous NC-17 rating is rightfully earned as we bear witness to a gradual descent into what appears on the surface to be a sex addiction, but what’s most important is seeing how McQueen and writer Abi Morgan managed to tell Brandon’s story without regurgitating Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream (2000), the surrogate father of the modern addiction subgenre that also, at one point, wore the NC-17 badge of (former) dishonor. They know one simply could not tell the story of Jesus and leave out the crucifixion, but consider the reverse – could one tell the crucifixion story and put Jesus more in the background?

McQueen reveals these intentions straight away in the opening sequence when the film’s title card (above) appears. Brandon lays with an uncomfortably vapid look on his face, presumably from the effects of sexual urges, withdrawal, kicking in. Only after he exits the shot does the title card appear center frame across a now-empty bed. Instead of a spotlight placed on the addict, McQueen amplifies the addiction. We neither learn Brandon’s last name nor much at all of his upbringing. Compared to Aronofsky’s stereotypical low rent drug addict turned dealer Harry Goldfarb, the main character played by Jared Leto, Brandon is almost more normalized than the definition of the word. He resides in an upper-class environment: corporate job, apartment, and lifestyle. Where Harry’s love for heroin created distance from his family, Brandon’s reluctant closeness with loved ones proves detrimental to feeding his uncontrollable desires.

Are we looking at Brandon, or is Brandon a representation of us gazing inward at ourselves?

Also of equal importance are the choices to name the film Shame and the character Brandon. One anagram for the word shame is hames, which means “to spoil through clumsiness or ineptitude.” Brandon’s increasing inability to control himself sexually certainly speaks to this. The camera’s distance during a dinner date with a co-worker mirrors his state of mind; brief periods of mental drifting to ponder where his next ‘fix’ will come from later that evening. Brandon as a name has lots of meaning relative to what I believe is the film’s theme, one of “a very chaotic restless nature” and “holding an intense urge that does not let you rest.” This is clear in a noteworthy sequence in the film where the promiscuity of his sister, played by Carey Mulligan, drives him to go out on a solo night jog across the city. Is running away from temptation Brandon’s version of trying to ‘sober up’ or, if Brandon represents us as a whole, is McQueen saying that we are running away from exposing and thus treating our individual or collective ‘addictions’ (i.e. impulses)? He alludes to this in a 2012 interview with The Guardian, aptly stating “want, urge and need create drama.”

Like Brandon, we’re too afraid to look in the mirror and face the ugliness inside.

Aside from a few scenes with Brandon’s facial expressions and poses being synonymous with the word, there really isn’t much in the way of shame being explicitly expressed or presented in Shame. Visiting with Sissy after her suicide attempt makes us believe Brandon has realized the error of his ways, but by the end he’s back on the hunt for yet another sexual conquest, settling for a woman whose former delivery of an inviting gaze now resembles uncertainty. Again, McQueen emphasizes the age-old cautionary tale and simple fact that we cannot help others if we cannot help ourselves. Brandon’s on-screen martyrdom and symbolic crucifixion, getting ‘nailed’ by multiple sexual partners in a harrowing scene with a pain-for-pleasure facial expression like no other, is presented to serve as a guide for coming to terms with our own flaws and displays our inability to regain control. However, there’s also no shame in calling out the performances as nothing short of flawless and the film as no less than a masterpiece.

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