Before Steve McQueen became a household name with his adaptation of slave narrative 12 Years a Slave, he certainly wasn’t well-known for his mainstream films, primarily established on the short film festival circuit. His début, Hunger, about the 1981 Irish IRA hunger strikes came to prominence in the awards season. But between these two films, came something a little more daring and taboo. Collaborating again with Michael Fassbender, Steve McQueen directed and wrote Shame, an explicit and unflinching look at sex addiction.
As the title suggests, nothing is off-limits in Shame, public sex, prostitutes, frank discussions of pornography genres, gay sex, even hinted incest, all in a day in the life of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), who is the epitome of a young modern city dweller. He is a relatively successful executive/consultant type, who to the rest of the world seems to be smart, intelligent, sexy, albeit a bit average. But just beneath the surface of this slick and desirable image, is an obsession which is slowly eating away at Brandon. Evenings spent with a glass of wine and hardcore pornography, watched as if it were the latest soap opera, little or no engagement with what is actually going on on-screen and enormous collections of porn magazines. Not just confined to his own personal world, hardcore pornography also makes its way into his work computer. The suffocating impact of all this pornography, sets the image of a man for whom porn, sex and masturbation is no longer something fun, it’s a compulsive necessity. Taking breaks at work to masturbate in the toilets is normalcy for Brandon. Having pornography on in the background like it’s the radio, simply creates a deeper impression of how distorted Brandon’s sexuality is.
The film opens with a particularly erotic but unsettling scene. Brandon is on the train sitting opposite a woman who he locks eye contact with. Staring at her, she begins to squirm in her seat, slouching down, letting her skirt ride up slightly, biting her lip. This unspoken vow of lust toward one another continues for an uncomfortably long time, turning the erotic into the disconcerting. It takes a troubling turn when she gets off the train, revealing both a wedding ring and engagement ring. Brandon follows her, despite a marked change in her demeanor, clearly indicating she perhaps got caught up in the sexual attention. Brandon aggressively pursues her, making no attempt to hide his intentions. She disappears, leaving Brandon frustrated, with an ever so slight glint of anger in his eyes. This opening scene tells us everything we need to know about Brandon, but it still doesn’t quite prepare you for the lengths he’ll go to satisfy himself. It also introduces a filmic technique which is utilised is almost every scene in the film, the uncomfortably long static shots. The scene where Brandon goes running, the opening scenes of Brandon walking around in his apartment. Every minute detail, every nuanced and subtle performance, becomes a thousand decibels louder. Everything is more explicit, more invasive and more uncomfortable. For example, Brandon comes home to hear the shower on, and music. Believing there to be an intruder, he grabs his baseball bat and barges into the bathroom, only to find his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) showering. Whilst they try to work their way through the misunderstanding, she is clearly naked, makes no attempt to cover herself up despite being with her brother. Neither seem to bothered about her nakedness, but the scene again goes on for just enough time for it to become unsettling. In a world where sexuality, for many western men and women, has become something so open and so diverse, it’s easy to forget that it is perhaps something we shouldn’t display for the world to see and ultimately there is a reason why sometimes its difficult to look at sex or passion or even plain nudity.
There is a particular focus on pornography in Shame, the fact it’s so easily accessible, and whilst not shown, different genres in porn are acknowledged. Anyone who hasn’t been particularly exposed to this, may find the tangle of words difficult to comprehend, but risk googling it, and you’ll perhaps see something you wish you hadn’t. It touches on this idea that sometimes sex is grotesque and unacceptably depraved. Whilst it doesn’t make any sweeping comments about sexuality and pornography, it definitely cements the pop-culture turning point of porn as reality, no longer is it about the communal wank material in a bush, or glamour models in awkward positions, pornography is very accessible, very explicit and very affecting. Sex and porn, artificial and real become horrifically blurred in Shame. Brandon attempts to go on a first date, with Marianne, a coworker, which is just as awkward as everything else in the movie. Brandon is callously cold when talking about relationships, longevity, marriage, commitment and love, stating his total disbelief in the idea of ‘one man for one woman’. It’s no accident that the man with compulsive masturbation issues also has issues with keeping a girlfriend. Later on Brandon takes Marianne to a stunning hotel, floor to ceiling windows, surrounded by the world, simultaneously exposed and hidden, he is unable to perform, leaving Marianne with no option but to leave and call it a day on their short relationship. Later on, he calls a prostitute and has sex with her pressed up against the window. He expresses his frustration at not being able to make love to someone he cares about. This is but only the beginning of Brandon’s unraveling.
Again, only hinted at and never fully indulged, are the familial issues between Sissy and Brandon, and the hinted-at incestual relationship they have. They appear comfortable around one another naked, or wearing very little. Perhaps showing that they both are more comfortable being physically vulnerable than emotionally exposed. The relationship they have is odd, it’s spiteful and venomous, but also close and protective. Between Fassbender and Mulligan, there seems to be this suggestion that they both know more than they’re willing to say. When they interact with others in the film, the way they look at each other and listen to what the other is saying, almost like it’s something more than observation, a knowing of what they each mean, even if it’s not what they are saying. It’s clear they both have relationship/sex issues, Sissy sleeps with Brandon’s coworker, but once she’s done climbs into bed with Brandon. Although where Brandon has sexual issues, Sissy has mental health issues. This eventually culminates in a suicide attempt, which is hinted at throughout the film, standing close to the edge of the subway. They both hit rock bottom at the same time, whilst Sissy lays on Brandon’s bathroom floor covered in blood with slit wrists, Brandon having been refused entry to a club for being drunk, decides to go into a gay bar and accepts an offer of oral sex from a man in a cavernous, crushed velvet lined gay sex club. Earlier in the evening, Brandon flirts with a woman at a bar, putting his hand in between her legs, only to then taunt her boyfriend with sexual fantasies of what he’d like to do to her. Naturally this ends up in a fight in which Brandon categorically loses. He then goes on to visit women who are presumably prostitutes, and has a threesome with them, filmed in explicit detail. They both crash, both reaching the height of their frenzied, complex and broken existences.
Shame doesn’t make sweeping statements about the wrongs and rights of sex, or the role of pornography in modern sexuality, but compelling performances from all the cast leave little to be said about pornography. Emotionally gripping, Shame is much more than ‘the film you can’t watch with your parents’, it’s riveting, heart wrenching, uncomfortable viewing. Michael Fassbender is brilliant, but Carey Mulligan is exceptional. She takes the broken femme role to another level.