By Zak Rye. Between low-brow and no-brow, this is unCultured, where we attempt to shed a new light on some of our favorite misunderstood and often overlooked films. In this edition, we struggle to peel back the many layers of sexual depravity to reveal the tender humanity hidden within Steve McQueen’s 2011 film, Shame.
Once removed as a suffix and given life as its own term, “opia” has been defined by The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as “the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable”, a phenomena not unfamiliar to Shame‘s flawed protagonist, Brandon (Michael Fassbender). Drawn from some harrowing concoction of Patrick Bateman and Don Juan, Brandon is a complicated man whose focus is rather simple–he needs to feed his addiction. In a continuous stream of debauchery, ranging from quick jerk off sessions at work to anonymous blowjobs in gay sex clubs, we observe the oppressive miasma that comes from the underbelly of human desire.
Steve McQueen, who is responsible for such powerhouses as 12 Years a Slave and Hunger, is surgically deft in removing nearly every triviality, every unnecessary detail, from the film. We never learn Brandon’s last name, what he actually does for a living, or what might have happened to him that formed this dark obsession. By filtering out the typical who/what/why, we’re exposed to an unadulterated and ghastly human condition. Brandon’s seemingly involuntary sexual binges are cast dispassionately against sparse dialog and sterile locations. While McQueen opts to remove many details from his characters’ past and present, his attention to symbolic detail is watertight. A constantly ticking clock, the word “fuck” scrawled on a wall, an unyielding routine, powerful eye contact. These elements glow with intense importance when placed against this stark and impersonal backdrop.
The meat and potatoes, if you will, are unblinkingly direct and exceptionally intentional. Brandon is a sex addict. His life is barren and entirely uninteresting without his deleterious dependency. He has little to say and even less of a need to express himself as an actual person. His only thing close to a relationship, which is at once both subtly and overtly sexual, is with his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). In contrast to Brandon, Sissy’s problems are more or less worn on her sleeve. During an unintentional surprise visit to Brandon’s, we quickly learn that Sissy has been left by her boyfriend, has a less than lucrative job as a lounge singer, and a fondness for fucked up men, which just happens to include her brother.
During her stay, Sissy becomes an accidental catalyst of sorts in exposing Brandon’s surreptitious doings. Within days she catches him masturbating and discovers him to be a frequenter of a sexcam site. With the addition of Sissy’s one night stand with David, Brandon’s married and utterly douche-y boss, her presence swiftly prompts Brandon to insist that she leave, a scene shot in a heartrending six-minute single take. As a result from this volcanic dispute, both characters dive head first into their demons, with less than desirable consequences.
To assume that Shame is but a mere commentary on what the media tends to dub our “overly sexualized” times would be an unfortunate oversimplification. Brandon is not a psychopathic monster, void of feelings and intent on destroying others. Nor is he a caricature of a porn-addicted walking hormone. Shame presents a victim who disgracefully indulges in his wants, depicting the harm he is inflicts on himself as much as those who surround him. In the closing montage of his sexual escapades, Brandon locks eyes with the screen, mid-orgasm. We see nothing but pain and remorse in his eyes. It’s a moment that immaculately captures McQueen’s goal, stripping away the particulars that might allow us to form an unbiased opinion. We have no option other than to stare into the face of honest lament, and accept that it lives in each and every one of us.
Five more things about Shame that might help “get you there”:
5) In addition to the film being shot in an impressive twenty-five days, the scene in which Brandon and David go to see Sissy sing was shot in one take and in real time. The scene was filmed at 3:00am with three cameras. No one on the set had ever heard Carey Mulligan sing before this moment and the reactions are said to be completely genuine.
4) The scene of Brandon having sex with a nameless, presumably “professional” woman in the window of a New York hotel was actually filmed during the day, with numerous spectators watching from the street below. The hotel is actually The Standard Hotel, and has quite a reputation, due to the acts of sexual exhibitionism that take place often in the windows. It’s been written about several times, especially in 2013, when a couple “reenacting” the scene fell through the window. Not necessarily the worst way go…
3) Shame is one of not that many films to be reviewed by the Art of Psychiatry. In the review, the character of Sissy is diagnosed with Boarderline Personality Disorder. Oddly, Brandon is not.
2) In keeping with McQueen’s penchant for realism, Shame contains no opening credits. A window is opened, as it is everyday in Brandon’s routine, and our story beings.
1) There has been much commentary regarding the wound on Brandon’s cheek. While we know it comes from an altercation with a disgruntled boyfriend, frollowing Brandon’s extreme forwardness with said boyfriend’s girlfriend, the wound seems to come and go throughout the film. Certainly, this could be due to the short filming period and a lack of attention by the make-up crew. Or, a brilliant detail intentionally added by McQueen, symbolizing Brandon’s internal wound coming to surface and retreating. We hope it’s the latter.