Brandon seems to live an ordinary life. But he hides a terrible secret.
SHAME (2011) is another hypnotic and emotionally charged film from British director Steve McQueen. The artist turned filmmaker’s debut film Hunger stars Michael Fassbender, who lost over 30 pounds in his role as Robert Gerard, “Bobby Sands,” an I. R. A. militant who starved himself to death in protest of the conditions in Maze Prison in 1981. Fassbender returns as Brandon Sullivan, a young business executive living alone in New York with an insatiable appetite for prostitutes, masturbation, pornography, and sex. His addiction is absolute; it has affected his ability to have a meaningful relationship. He lives alone in his tidy, self-induced hell and even tried to rid himself of his shameful passion by throwing away all his porn magazines and graphic movies. However, his shame eventually rescinds, and he is back to his old self and habits again.
Brandon shuns intimacy with women. When he asked a co-worker, Marianne (Nicole Beharie) out on a date, his genuineness and attraction towards her were outside his “normal” sexual pursuits. After witnessing his many casual trysts, it came as awkwardly realistic to see him out on an actual “date.” The romantic evening was depicted in enduring, long camera shots and idle conversation. There were the mild flirtatious smiles, personal questions, and laughs.
When the date came to an end, I was hopeful that Brandon somehow found a resolve for his sexual addiction. Sadly, this expectation did not last. When he attempted to have an intimate relationship with Marianne, it did not fair well–he liked her. He can’t have sex with someone he liked. Instead of engaging what would feel to be a sense sexual normalcy, he well goes limp. Marianne’s uninhibited, gentle touch distorted his perception of what sex meant to him. Shame doesn’t specifically mention anything about Brandon’s obsession, and yet, the film provides every opportunity for you to experience every aspect of his behavior poignantly. He later eluded to soliciting a prostitute–as he had often done from the beginning, and throughout the film.
Brandon also has a wayward younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who has personality issues of her own. She is incredibly needy, sloppy, and self-mutilating. She is the complete opposite of Brandon and became a hindrance to his compulsive lifestyle. Her “attachment”, or need for closeness, brings about violent outbursts from Brandon. Sissy is a singer and one evening Brandon suggests to his overtly immature boss David (James Badge Dale) that they go to see her perform. Sissy’s rendition of Fred Ebb and John Kander‘s 1977 classic song New York, New York in a slow, ruminative manner moved Brandon to tears. I believe more than anything Brandon feels nothing but disgust and loathing for his behavior.
Her song had also inspired David to strike up a conversation with her–which led him to elicit a one night stand with Sissy much to Brandon’s disgust. He escapes his apartment–as if he is running from the sexual intimacy of the moment–disappointed at his sister’s seemingly ill regard. David is his boss, and they willingly violated his personal space. From Brandon’s reckless behaviors at brothels, strip clubs, and awkward flirtations at bars and on the subway, his sexual addictions are likened to a person who has a dependence on drugs or alcohol. It’s hard to redeem from that which brings comfort–or power.
Brandon and Sissy both share difficulties with intimacy. There are several moments in the film where I wondered about their personal history as brother and sister. Her consistency in calling and leaving messages on his answering machine–like an old stalking girlfriend. When he walks into the shower and sees her completely naked, she didn’t seem to be bothered by this and had no instinct to turn away. When she came home expectantly, she witnessed him masturbating, not disgusted by what she had witnessed. There is an uncomfortable underlying message here. Were they in an incestuous relationship at one time? Or were they sexually abused as children? Neither respect each other’s personal boundaries, and there is so much in this film that is not being said that adds to the hauntingly brilliant character performances.
Sexual addiction is hell; it’s not always about just fucking some stranger and feeling bad about yourself later. McQueen has taken the concept of fidelity and sexual obsession to the extreme; the film allows you a privilege–a glimpse into the sheer torment of isolation and sexual dependency, with impartiality and does it magnificently. Shame encompasses fantastic writing, cinematography, and direction–every aspect of what it takes to make a great film, masterful.
We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.
Art and supplementary materials courtesy ©2011 of Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights are reserved.