Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
Release: 2 December 2011
Trigger warning for mentions of self-harm and attempted suicide
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
“We’re not bad people,” the voice of Sissy whimpers over a montage of her brother, Brandon, having desperate sex with two women he does not know. Sissy heartbroken at her brother’s fury, Brandon remote. “We just come from a bad place.”
The details of this “bad place” are never given in Shame, but they aren’t necessary. The story of Brandon, a reclusive sex-addict whose life is thrown into torment when he must reconnect with his younger sister, is violent not in the traditional sense, and violent not in the sexual acts themselves, rather in the shrapnel that flies from explosions of self-destructive behavior, no matter what size.
Brandon wakes up in his bed, naked. His sheets are a strange blue, like the ocean, and his eyes almost seem to glow the same color. He gets out of bed, opens the windows, and his room is awash with light.
Cut to Brandon riding the train. He thinks back—having sex with a woman the previous night, the voicemail from his sister, masturbating in the shower—blinks back into the present. The music, low, swelling string chords kept steady by a persistent clicking, too fast to be a clock, too fast to be heartbeat. Just an ever-present sense of alarm and awareness.
He makes eye-contact with a woman on the train, examines her body. She looks at him, bashful but interested, puts one leg over the other so that her upper thigh is revealed under her dress. A moment later, she stands up and holds onto the bar, flashing her wedding ring. Brandon stands up, behind her, just close enough to be felt. She is still uncertain. When she gets off the train, he follows until she disappears into the crowd, and he goes on to work. Later at work, Brandon disappears into the men’s restroom to masturbate. He goes home, watches pornography over dinner, goes to bed.
Shame, I believe, is about two things: the inability to self-manifest, and the resulting cycle of addictive, damaging coping mechanisms.
Brandon gets fleeting opportunities for escape. The following morning, he goes to work, sits at his desk, and stares for a minute at his coworker Marianne across the warm, wood-toned office. In his head, he fantasizes of her with her chin perched on her bare shoulders, her lips pink, a soft, linen quality to the lighting, and she looks towards the camera sensuously before Brandon is jerked back out of reality. The fantasy is not inherently sexual, just a glimpse at vulnerability and intimacy that he can’t maintain. He later goes on a date with Marianne, but they do not sleep together.
Sissy shows up to Brandon’s apartment after leaving multiple voicemails, which he habitually ignores and never responds to. She asks if she can stay with him for a few days, and he reluctantly agrees. He and his boss, David, a lecherous man only slightly older than Brandon, go to hear Sissy sing in a fancy lounge, where Sissy performs a slow, smoky rendition of “New York, New York,” which brings Brandon to tears. She returns to the table, and she and David hit it off. He notices the scars on her wrists from self-harm.
After drinks are done, they all go back to Brandon’s apartment, and Sissy and David disappear to have sex on Brandon’s bed. He paces through his apartment, forced to listen to the giggling and kissing noises of foreplay. When he can’t stand to listen anymore, he changes into his jogging clothes and runs away.
Sissy eventually finds out about the details of Brandon’s obsession, walking in on him masturbating and seeing a cam girl site open on his computer, and she rejects him, causing Brandon to wipe his slate clean. He gets rid of all his pornography and tries to have a relationship with Marianne. But when he can’t get himself aroused, he immediately falls back into routine and has rough sex with a stranger against the huge window.
The movie culminates in Brandon’s rejection of Sissy, right when she tries to amend things. She says she’s sorry, to which Brandon says, “Try doing something for a change… How are you helping me?… You’re a burden. You’re dependent.” Then he leaves and spirals into withdrawal. In his absence, Sissy slits her wrists.
Both characters reminded of the taboo of their coping mechanisms (David drawing attention to Sissy’s scars, Brandon’s date with Marianne and Sissy’s revulsion) drives them at first to try and improve, then they rocket back into the depths of indulgence.
Beyond getting rid of his pornography collection, Brandon tries to improve. He goes on a (semi-disastrous) date with Marianne, which shows through a six-minute one-take the total social disconnect that has manifested in him separate from sex. They try to talk about relationships and family, but Brandon often comes off as off-putting, uncomfortable, and remote. He has fallen out of touch with the regular world, and a single instance of trying to access it is not enough.
This scene juxtaposes well the power of his routine, which is so natural and easy. He doesn’t have to swim upstream normally, and his interactions with women are sexually-driven, so trying to get to know Marianne, who he thinks of in a sensual, romantically-driven way, is challenging.
The women in Shame are, of course, objectified. Because Brandon is the perspective character and because he calls sex workers to help fulfill his needs, he is the subject, and the women he interacts with sexually are usually objects. However there is no indication of judgement on the part of the camera. The professionals who sleep with Brandon are shown counting their money, joking with Brandon, struggling to clasp a bra strap—functioning as normal women doing their jobs. Objects in their nudity, but then so is Brandon very often, but the bias is that they are at the receiving end of his coping mechanism.
The main exceptions are Elizabeth, the woman at the bar Brandon flirts with, and Marianne. Elizabeth, when Brandon guesses her eye color correctly, passes him a shot and maintains eye-contact while putting up with David’s clumsy advances, and afterwards she invites Brandon to get in the car with her. Elizabeth: instigator.
Brandon kisses Marianne at work and asks her to leave with him. They go to a hotel with enormous windows that looks over the water. They go to the bed, beginning to take off their clothes, all the while kissing and giggling. Brandon likes Marianne. But as they keep going, Brandon can’t get himself engaged in her sexually, and she eventually leaves. Because of the function sex serves for him, as the escape from the unseen something that constantly tortures him—what kind of catastrophe would it engender if he married the attachment he desires but know will damage and humiliate him, and the only thing keeping him alive?
Sissy and Brandon both have unspeakable trauma that they try to convince themselves they’ve gotten over when they really haven’t. The repressive, professional, lonely adult world prevents them from being vulnerable, from ever opening up and examining their true selves, unless it is through their vices. When rejected, they both descend into coping: Brandon with sex, Sissy with self-harm.
But these problems have unequal consequences. Brandon’s anger and cruelty drives Sissy to attempt suicide. He knew she had a history of self-harm, but he is selfish and inward because she humiliated him. And Brandon never says sorry, because that would be admission.
The shame is not in the sex. The shame is in running away.
(Note: Sorry this is so late! My weekend ended up being pretty crazy. After I watched the movie Sunday I felt I needed a bit more time to process it. Next weekend’s talk should be up by Sunday. Thank you for your patience!)