Screening Log #46: Shame (2011)

Written by Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, and Nicole Beharie




There is something to be said for establishing a strong relationship between form and content. In any piece of art, the medium and manner through which the message is transmitted should work implicitly to reinforce the content being transmitted. There are difficult complex and subtle decisions to be made regarding this issue, speaking from my own experience in creative writing, such as: how does the structure work to enforce the content; how could formal decisions potentially alienate an audience, or undercut the thematic bent of the work? It can be a challenging balance to achieve.

Steve McQueen’s Shame is a film that seems structured to directly mirror the habits of its protagonist – if we can do some yoga to limber up that term to stretch into applicability here. The film introduces Brandon Sullivan, Michael Fassbender, trapped into a cycle of activity: several mornings pass, their events identical as he rises, gets out of bed, walks about nude, checks his answering machine, and masturbates in the shower. Brandon works in Manhattan at… some sort of an agency where pitches are made, we’ll assume it’s marketing. He rides the train and stares intensely at beautiful women, he calls prostitutes, watches porn, all while being led by his libido like a small child walking a Great Dane. McQueen inserts vignettes of Brandon at work both to interrupt the monotony of these cycles and, I’d suggest, to mirror Brandon’s frequent penetrative acts.

It is important to note that none of these sexual acts seems to give Brandon any joy. His pursuit of sexual pleasure is compulsive to the extent that its necessity – and, also, one would assume, its relative ease, given his looks and charm – renders it void of any real pleasure; perhaps relief is, in its own way, the pleasure of absence. Brandon’s routine is interrupted by an unexpected, and actively avoided, visit from his sister Sissy, Carey Mulligan. Sissy acts as a mirror, less a whole individual than an abstract surface against which Brandon’s activities are reflected. This fact is made explicit when Brandon ambushes Sissy in his shower, McQueen showing only Sissy’s reflection in the bathroom mirror for the entirety of the scene.

Sissy’s interruption sends ripples across his life as she interacts with his boss on a night out, and Brandon’s relationship with a co-worker takes a turn that is, for him, ironic and frustrating. The emotionally repressive Brandon eventually boils over, his turbulent relationship with Sissy culminating with a potentially tragic event that, when closely observed, reveals itself to likely also be a moment in a repeated cycle between the siblings. Much in the way that few particular and substantial details, at best, are given regarding Brandon’s life, his relationship with Sissy is equally vague. The film alludes to some sort of shared trauma in the pair’s past, but is not forthcoming about the details. Despite McQueen’s meticulous aesthetic eye for detail, his impressive long takes and sustained tracking shots, there is little given to the viewer other than, admittedly gorgeous, surface detail.

Here is where the relationship between form and content becomes apparent. McQueen has made a film whose concerns mirror those of its main character: Brandon’s superficiality, his inability to connect with other individuals beyond their being an end to placate his sexual compulsions, and his affinity for Glenn Gould’s Bach are all manifest in how McQueen structures to the film (notwithstanding the obvious phallic connotations of the New York subway train, always moving through the tunnel). The viewer is unable to emotionally connect with Brandon for the same reasons that he is unable to connect with anyone. Indeed, in this instance, McQueen’s direction not only places the viewer at a remove from Brandon and Sissy, but also posits itself, knowingly or not, as relating to Brandon in much the same way that he relates to women. By refusing to engage Brandon on a deeper level, the film abstracts him as a means to an end rather than an end in-itself.

The “shame” of the title becomes less an indictment of Brandon, or his character, and more a shared state of being inhabited by the character, the film, and the film maker. By rendering the film itself complicit in its depiction of Brandon’s situation, McQueen has made Shame an interesting and well-constructed film; by positioning the viewer as one of Brandon’s, and, by extension, the film’s, conquests, Shame prevents itself from making any meaningful connection. The film ultimately propagates the same cyclic behaviour of its characters, ending as it begins with any notion of progress ambiguous at best, obfuscating whether the inability to connect is its shame or the viewer’s.


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