If you like this film, there’s probably something wrong with you, says SHAUN LU.
Directed by Steve McQueen
Shame is a harrowing study of compulsion, of how people can feel like prisoners in their own bodies. It is by turns mesmerising and misanthropic, demonstrating the vulnerability and ultimate slavery of the human condition. If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, it’s probably because you’re a normal human being.
Director Steve McQueen previously teamed up with Michael Fassbender in Hunger, a film about the last days of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. In Shame, Fassbender’s Brandon is a man utterly, and hopelessly, consumed by lust.
The recurring image of the film is the subway, a symbol of entrapment and the insistent regularity with which Brandon’s sexual urges can and do return. Each morning, he stares greedily at a woman opposite, barely noticing the diamond ring on her finger. She initially reciprocates, but an instance where he follows her, like a predator after his prey, tracked by a panicky and shuddery camera, unnerves her. After this brief episode, he returns to the lassitude and sterility that define his life.
Having satisfied himself in the shower in the morning, Brandon then urgently masturbates at work, which the viewer sees from above, Planet Earth-style. Everything has become about the satisfaction of a basic need, utterly devoid of meaning. You will never see a film where there is so much sex, but so little eroticism. The constant close-ups of Brandon’s vapid, almost mechanistic expressions serve to further enmesh the viewer in a claustrophobic web from which there is seemingly no escape.
Brandon’s counterpoint is his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a fragile singer who is addicted not to sex, but affection. Sissy’s weakness is exposed by a few choice words from Brandon’s predatory (and married) boss, while Brandon looks on with a curious mixture of jealousy and disgust. The possibly incestuous nature of their relationship is again and again alluded to, giving us the most fleeting of glimpses into the psychological traumas that may have caused their respective conditions.
Sissy, while unhinged, is by far the more grounded of the two. Brandon’s often physical altercations with her reflect his grappling with reality. As this reality breaks down, Brandon is catalysed towards redemption. But the bleak nature of the film as a whole militates against the notion that Brandon can ever escape his cycle of shame.